• Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

— Before 1995, when the City of San Diego decided to expand what was then called Jack Murphy Stadium and give the Chargers their infamous ticket guarantee, one of the most popular plums of local political patronage was a seat on the stadium's governing board. Made up of members appointed in equal numbers by the county board of supervisors and the city council, which jointly owned the stadium, the group retired each month to a plush cubbyhole of a boardroom at club level to decide on matters such as the condition of the grass on the field and the selection of flavored margaritas for the stadium bar.

Councilwoman Valerie Stallings, who represented the district surrounding the stadium and anointed herself the facility's godmother, would frequently sit in on meetings accompanied by her pet dog, who went around the room sniffing at the hems and shoes of the various team executives, beer saleswomen, swap meet representatives, scoreboard contractors, janitorial suppliers, sod growers, light bulb salesmen, and assorted others with a commercial interest in how the stadium and its sprawling parking lot were being operated.

For its members, however, the board meetings themselves were only a passing burden, shouldered in unspoken anticipation of the free game-day admission to the stadium and its exclusive box for government officials, placed strategically in midfield, high above the Budweiser-drinking rabble. In their private "Director's Box," the stadium board would devour huge plates of prime rib and sip fine wine and imported ale while schmoozing with the city council, the board of supervisors, wealthy campaign contributors, and numerous attractive female companions who seemed to materialize at every Charger game. The free food and drink was paid for by Service America, the vendor that had a lucrative, exclusive contract to sell alcohol and other refreshments to the captive stadium audience.

As part of the stadium-expansion deal, financed by city taxpayers, the county gave up its ownership stake, and the stadium board as previously constituted was dissolved. But as is many times the case with government, the board didn't fade into the sunset. Instead, it was quietly reborn as the "Qualcomm Stadium Advisory Board," its members appointed by the council. Though it had no direct decision-making authority -- that was given to the city manager -- seats on the board were no less coveted than before.

There was another minor change. The free food and booze were gone, banished under duress following a legal settlement between the city and ex-councilman Bruce Henderson, who went to court seeking to void the city's contract with Service America on the grounds that the drinks and buffet were an illegal gift to city officials, who had failed to disclose them on annual financial statements required by state law. Another part of the settlement required the city council and board of supervisors to file amended statements, revealing that they regularly partied in the box. "We've proven our point -- the fact that the food was a gift," Henderson said following the settlement in February 2000. "And they are no longer taking that gift."

But the freebies were not entirely lost. Under the new arrangement, members of the board, the city council, and their guests pay a flat fee, currently $15, to access the drinks and buffet. According to minutes of a recent board meeting, "Food in the Director's Box would be upgraded this year with no change in the cost, which will remain at $15." And, of course, admission to all stadium events continues to be free for the advisory boardmembers, who continue to meet on a monthly basis, except in the summer, when they sometimes skip a month, as is the case this year. Under state law, because the members are performing their stadium-monitoring duty, the gratis admissions are not gifts and do not have to be reported.

So what has the board been up to?

According to the minutes, during the last 12 months it has devoted particular attention to erecting a bust of Union-Tribune "editor in chief" Herb Klein, who has lobbied city hall on building a new downtown ballpark and whose paper has spoken favorably of tearing down Qualcomm and giving the Chargers a new home. Klein himself also met members of the board to arrange installation of a bust of Jack Murphy, the late U-T sports editor for whom the stadium was named before financial needs required the naming rights be sold to Qualcomm in 1997.

"The Herb Klein bust is moving forward with a planned September 9 unveiling. Steve Cushman, who has been participating in the project, has suggested the board set guidelines for the size of the accompanying plaques along with a 50-word limit on the inscription.

"Member [Karen] McElliott reported on several meetings she had attended on the Jack Murphy statue. Participants have included Herb Klein, John Carlson, and Bob Breitbard. Fund-raising has been completed for the project with the Union-Tribune and Qualcomm, Inc., contributing most of the money. The goal of this project is to have the unveiling be a Super Bowl event, so the committee will be working with the NFL on the project. An unveiling associated with Media Day is under consideration.

"Member Martinez suggested if the overall height of the statue is eight feet, a pedestal might be necessary. The Board also needs to approve the inscription.

"Member McElliott asked the Facilities Committee to meet to determine the siting of the statue. She added, the Union-Tribune also wants to explore the possibility of placing a relief of Jack Murphy on the field."

The board also sometimes worries about what is to become of the stadium after the Padres depart for their new downtown ballpark in a few years and ponders how much money they would need to get from the city to implement their ideas. "Member [Steve] Redfearn stated there are consultants who specialize in 'creating' events at stadiums, and it is this sort of talent that is needed. Typically stadium general managers and assistants do not have time to do this in addition to handling existing bookings. Member McElliott added it will also be important to work with the Convention Center to co-sponsor events.

"Member Redfearn agreed, adding that private concerns and corporate events have become a big business that the Stadium should get a bigger piece of. [Stadium manager] Bill Wilson reminded the Board that, in line with the recommendations of the Zero-Based management group, Stadium administrative staff would be reduced to just one manager and a secretary when the ballpark opens. It was noted the advantages of the Stadium are good weather and a big parking lot. With the departure of the Padres, more interest and competition for parking-lot events is expected. Bill Wilson added that the flea market was his biggest moneymaker when he ran the Rose Bowl."

Some have accused the nine-member board of having direct or indirect conflicts of interest as they go about their advisory roles. Chairman Doug Barnhart, a regular donor to various city council campaigns, owns one of the region's largest general contracting companies, which is helping to build the Padres' downtown ballpark. Before that, his company built the Chargers' $12 million headquarters, paid for by the city, in Murphy Canyon, and he barely lost out on a bid to construct the Qualcomm expansion in 1997. He is seen as a likely bidder if and when the Chargers or the city ever builds a new stadium, making Qualcomm obsolete.

The minutes show Barnhart has been especially active in lobbying the board and city council for more socializing in the city box, a practice some councilmembers have been reluctant to resume following controversy over the Chargers deal, Qualcomm expansion, and prolonged fight with Bruce Henderson and the county grand jury over the gifts of food and beverages from Service America. "The chair encouraged the board and city council to make more personal use of the city box for social purposes," according to board minutes of this April 2. A month earlier, during the meeting of March 6, the minutes recorded that "The chair said his goal is to bring the Mayor and City Council back to the stadium."

Another member of the board is attorney Regina Petty, the board's vice chairwoman and a partner in the firm Wilson, Petty Kosmo and Turner, LLP. According to her financial disclosure statement, one of her clients is Service America, the company that provides exclusive food, drink, and catering services at the stadium. Petty reports that in 2001, she received between $1000 and $10,000 in legal fees from Service America for representing the company.

Similarly, attorney John Wertz, a shareholder in the firm of Sullivan, Wertz McDade & Wallace, reports that he made between $10,000 and $1 million from the firm in 2001, including between $10,000 and $100,000 from Ace Parking Management, which has the exclusive contract to run the stadium's parking operation. "My law firm has rendered services to Ace Parking Management, Inc., since January 1993," notes the attorney in his disclosure statement.

Wertz also has performed extensive legal work for various members of the city council, including the defense of ex-councilwoman Valerie Stallings, who pleaded guilty in January 2001 to making false financial disclosure reports and was forced to resign from the council as a result of the John Moores gift-giving scandal, which at one point threatened the city's deal to build a new Padres ballpark. Wertz has said he recuses himself from discussions and votes regarding Ace, which has just extended its stadium contract.

Many boardmembers who don't report potential financial conflicts admit that they have personal relationships with team owners and other stadium tenants. In January, members were asked by Barnhart to file statements in connection with a "liaison" program he was setting up to personally link up boardmembers with stadium tenants and city councilmembers, ostensibly to promote stadium development.

According to a form filed by attorney and entrepreneur Simon F. Coleman, "I have known the Spanos [family] since they acquired the [Chargers] team and have played golf with them. [Padre president] Bob [Vizas] and I have struck up a beginning relationship, based upon being fellow alumni of Michigan. [San Diego State University athletic director] Rick Bay and I [also Michigan alumni] have known each other for many years."

Boardmember Stephen Redfearn, vice president of marketing and entertainment at the Viejas Casino, wrote, "[I am] not a pal of [city councilwoman] Donna Frye's -- on the other side of an issue concerning Becky's House, which I'm a boardmember of! [I'm] very good friends and am in the district of [city councilman Brian] Maienshein!"

Other boardmembers include nursing-home owner and real estate investor Karen McElliott, who mounted a failed bid for the Seventh District city council seat two years ago; architect Joseph Martinez; attorney Robert Brownlie; and McDonald's franchisee Harold Lewis. All are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council.

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader