San Diego In Gilbert and Sullivan's Yeomen of the Guard, the strolling jester, Jack Point, convinces the head jailer and assistant tormentor, Wilfred Shadbolt, to tell a fat fib about an escaped prisoner. Together, Jack and Wilfred sing:
Tell a tale of cock and bull
Of convincing detail full
Heaven defend us!
What a tale of cock and bull!
The operetta debuted in 1888. Fast forward to San Diego 2003. Every day, in both the public and private sectors, a cock is being stroked and bull is being thrown.
Consider sewage. On September 6, Mayor Dick Murphy and councilmember Scott Peters, chairman of the clean-water task force, piously declared that the sewage-spill rate had dropped by 58 percent in three years. But they were boasting of the number of sewage spills, not the amount of effluent that had poured into the ocean. In the same three years, a whopping 38 million gallons of gunk had been discharged into San Diego Bay. In July, the Environmental Protection Agency filed suit against the city, charging that 42 million gallons of raw sewage has poured into the ocean since 1997, the year the city was ordered by the court to do something about the ancient sewer system. If the agency wins this year's suit, the city could pony up at least $41 million for violations and be ordered to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to comply with the 1997 terms.
In September, the city intended to sell $505 million worth of sewer revenue bonds. Verily, the word "bond" connotes truth, probity. In finance, a bond is a binding agreement, a solemn covenant. But, according to city government sources, Diann Shipione, the whistle-blowing member of the board of administration of the San Diego City Employees' Retirement System, sent e-mails in early September to the mayor, city attorney, city manager, city auditor, and city retirement system questioning whether the sewer bond prospectus had told the truth about the stability of the city's pension fund.
The offering was immediately withdrawn. Last week I called Shipione. She has never heard from anyone at city hall. I also called the city treasurer, deputy city manager, and the city attorney's office and got no response.
I was inquiring, too, about the refinancing of the ballpark bonds. Murphy's critics say he said the bonds have already been refinanced; he denies it. Both sides miss the point. On July 16, the city manager issued a report putting forward a plan to refinance the original ballpark bonds -- those tax-free, insured bonds that carried an astounding interest rate of 7.66 percent and had bond experts scratching their heads to figure how an insured municipal bond could sell at a junk-bond yield.
The new bonds would be sold this month at 4.89 percent, boasted the city manager's office. Lower rates would bring savings. Actually, however, the principal would go up from $169.7 million to at least $180 million, and perhaps $195 million. One reason the principal would jump is that the new bonds would be used to pay a year's worth of interest on the old bonds -- a slick way to "save" the city some money in the current budget year, says Bruce Henderson, former councilmember. "By such sleight of hand, the cost of the ballpark has shot up."
"The bonds are like a Ponzi scheme. They keep borrowing more to make earlier payments," says attorney Michael Aguirre.
But this Ponzi will have to wait, too. The ballpark-refinancing bonds have not been sold, either. The truth is that as long as the city can't decide what to tell investors about the state of the pension system, it can't sell any bonds, because any prospectus would have to spell out the city's financial health.
You can't talk about San Diego's fiscal health without getting into the sorry saga of the Chargers. They say they will plunk down money to build a new stadium -- if, of course, they get free land and infrastructure from the city. The team and city have been negotiating for months.
Councilmembers have honored their pledge of silence, but the Chargers have been trying to sell their proposals to any sucker who will listen. All along, City Attorney Casey Gwinn and Mayor Murphy have bent over backward (forward, actually) to accommodate anything the team pushed. But in the middle of this month, even Gwinn had had enough. He flayed the Chargers for yapping constantly.
It appeared that Gwinn had finally figured out how San Diego operates. A bit earlier, a purportedly new group called the Fans, Taxpayers and Business Alliance for NFL Football in San Diego, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the Labor Council of San Diego and Imperial Counties had come forward with a proposal to help the Chargers get a new stadium. Gwinn figured that the Chargers had choreographed the whole thing.
The chamber's and Chargers' official snake-oil salesman, Mark Fabiani, indignantly denied the charge. Yeah, sure. Back in December there was a silly proposal for a new Chargers stadium advanced by the San Diego International Sports Council -- a group of well-heeled sports idolaters who get city handouts and then turn around and lobby the city for pro-sports subsidies. The chamber -- which preaches separation of business and government but lobbies for every corporate-welfare scheme -- enthusiastically backed the goofy proposal.
Just who is this Fans, Taxpayers, and Business Alliance? Easy. It's barely distinguishable from the International Sports Council. It's made up of businesses and people who profit from the money that government gives to billionaire sports-team owners. The corporate sponsors include vendors (Anheuser-Busch Sales of San Diego, Mesa Distributing, and Coca-Cola San Diego), media (Cox Communications and Channel 4, San Diego magazine), sports contractors (Barnhart Corp.), and others such as Donovan's Steak and Chop House and Sycuan casino.
Co-founder is Dan Shea, the big enchilada of Donovan's. He is on the board of the sports council. Douglas E. Barnhart of Barnhart Corp., which helped construct the Chargers' training facility as well as the Padres' ballpark, is secretary of the sports council. Anheuser-Busch Sales, Coca-Cola of San Diego, Mesa Distributing, Cox/Channel 4, San Diego magazine, and Sycuan have no fewer than eight representatives on the board of the sports council.
On its website, the alliance states that the city approved the 1997 upgrade of Qualcomm "as a temporary solution to attract the Super Bowl to San Diego again." Then it cites supposed problems with Qualcomm, such as poor concession areas and outdated media facilities.
"That is an outrageous distortion of reality," says Henderson. "The contract is absolutely silent about the Super Bowl. The Chargers, who had control over the design, agreed with the city that this was a state-of-the-art facility that would serve the needs of San Diego through 2020."
"Actually, they said the renovations would get us many Super Bowls," says Aguirre. Councilmember Donna Frye adds that the corporate-welfare queens pushing for the stadium "aren't elected to represent the people."
In truth, I suspected all along that the Chargers, in collusion with business leaders, secretly planned to lobby for a new stadium quickly. But the public was completely deceived.
The alliance believes that ballpark architects may have made the statement, but couldn't definitively pinpoint it.
Oh, yes. In the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, liar Jack Point ends up prostrate and despondent. But that was in 1888. In England.