Each company was, and is, in the same relatively simple business: that of conducting kayak tours and renting kayaks. But San Diego Bike & Kayak’s approach to the hurdle posed by the “requests for proposal” process stood out. After extensive coaching from the Monger Group, San Diego Bike & Kayak submitted its paperwork on October 14, 2008. It was a thick, slick, and comprehensive sheaf of documents, nearly 200 pages long, which addressed the criteria with an eerie precision. (Curiously, page 44 of the submittal notes that “Nicholas Bauman…gained much of his kayak industry expertise by managing La Jolla Kayak while its owner was incarcerated.”) The other applicants apparently found the City’s requirements to be inchoate; their requests for proposal documentation was by comparison brief, informal, homemade, perhaps even amateurish. At the conclusion of the labyrinthine machinations — after the copiers had cooled and the paper cuts had healed — six tour companies, culled from a group of ten applicants, were ultimately awarded concessions. By mid-December, the city’s panel — utilizing criteria which included “responsiveness; professional experience; operating plans; financial capability; safety standards; and community service” — had reached its decision: San Diego Bike & Kayak had come in first.
Within weeks, charges of unfairness found their way to the mayor’s office. On January 9, 2009, Di Michieli and Bauman filed a protest, writing that the 15-tour cap imposed on all six vendors “would result in an improper reallocation of existing market share.” They also complained bitterly that OEX’s award of ten tour times was “disproportionately large” because OEX had been, in recent years, the smallest tour operator on the block.
Next, Vaughn Woods, in a document styled as a “Business Owner/Resident RFP Appeal,” wrote to the City, carping, “The …RFP legitimizes the ability of San Diego Bike & Kayak to disrupt…my business.” Not to be outdone, La Jolla Shores Association muckety-mucks Heaton and Coakley (the latter as chair of the Parks and Beaches Committee) weighed in, sending an impassioned letter to Sanders’s office that complained that the city had made its selections “without consideration of the length of time businesses have been in existence or community service they have provided.” The Association also decried the fact that La Jolla Surf Systems had been shut out and that “outside opportunists” — kayak operators without existing storefront operations in the neighborhood, or even worse, those lacking certain ill-defined historical ties to the town elders — were horning in on the action. Scolding the City for awarding slots to Aqua Adventures and La Jolla Sea Kayaks, Heaton and Coakley reserved their harshest brickbats for the top-dog status accorded to Di Michieli and Bauman, stating, “It appears that San Diego Bike & Kayak is being rewarded for bad behavior.”
However, despite their winning proposal, the principals of San Diego Bike & Kayak weren’t exactly overjoyed; Di Michieli and Bauman viewed their win as a pyrrhic victory at best, claiming that the net result of the process would — as they’d feared — boil down to a drastic diminution of their market share. Before they signed the licensing agreement, Di Michieli and Baumann, working both directly and through Jack Monger, continued to beseech the City for better terms. They requested numerous modifications to the terms of the concession, looking for ways to preserve the market edge they’d built. The City, they felt, didn’t understand the kayak business. They’d incorrectly delineated prime and nonprime times for the kayak tours, granting San Diego Bike & Kayak a number of unusable slots.
Along the way, Jack Monger pulled out all the stops. On March 6, 2009, he emailed David Sandoval, deputy director of the City’s Real Estate Assets Department. “Our client is absolutely distraught.” Fairly demanding a personal meeting, Monger stated, “It’s time for a conversation involving April McCusker (of Real Estate Assets), San Diego Bike & Kayak, you, and me.” Three days later, Sandoval replied: “I see no valid reason for a meeting.”
Whatever their merit or the standing of their authors to lodge them, the protests were brushed aside by Sanders’s office, who utilized gatekeeper Stephen Lew, director of community outreach, to quash criticism. On April 1, 2009, their attempts to secure a better deal rebuffed, San Diego Bike & Kayak entered into a contract with the City for a one-year term, which has subsequently been renewed for 2010–2011.
As it happens, San Diego Bike & Kayak donated $2500 to the strong-mayor campaign in 2009. Was the modest contribution an attempt to grease the skids? Di Michieli, although admitting that her company had never contributed to a political campaign before, denies the connection. She maintains that “We’ve always been interested in politics.”
When I asked Jack Monger whether his firm had recommended that his client throw a few kayak bucks to the strong-mayor campaign, he said, “I don’t remember whose idea it was.” When I asked Monger why San Diego Bike & Kayak chose to make this their first — and only, to date — monetary contribution to a political cause, he snapped, “My client just likes good government.”
Good government apparently makes good friends. Curiously, the mayor, the Mongers, and San Diego Bike & Kayak keep popping up together — as they did in the January 15, 2010 online edition of San Diego Metro Magazine, where Sanders and San Diego Bike & Kayak were dubbed, along with a handful of others, “Metro Movers 2010.” After expressing their gratitude to cosponsor Monger (along with the misnamed law firm, “Hicks,” Fletcher & Mack), the Metro mavens went on to laud the honorees. Praising the kayak company as “one of the few businesses to support” the City’s regulatory efforts at the Shores, they wrote, “San Diego Bike & Kayak has become the role model for how a business that operates in public areas can be very successful while at the same time being mindful of how their activities impact the surrounding residents.” About Sanders, they gushed: “[His] steady, determined demeanor…has helped him resolve so many important issues over the past six years.” And the Metro folks brought out their crystal ball, stating that Sanders’s “strong public-approval rating is likely to result in voters making the strong-mayor form of government permanent when the issue comes before them in June, 2010.”