Two big San Diego losers in this week's election are looking for a big-money, tax-funded consolation prize in the form of a hurry-up city-council power-play that could ultimately forever emblazon the name of Qualcomm and its billionaire Democratic co-founder on the city's iconic Balboa Park.
The controversial Plaza de Panama project hatched by La Jolla's Irwin Jacobs, donor to failed Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton and Republican mayor Kevin Faulconer, whose touted endorsement of the $1.8 billion Chargers stadium deal fell flat with voters, is set for a November 14 council vote, just weeks before three newly elected councilmembers take their seats, preventing them from having a say in the matter.
Will Faulconer allow San Diego taxpayers to be taken to the cleaners by Jacobs, as critics assert they were when his Qualcomm cell-phone giant got bargain naming rights to the city's Mission Valley stadium in 1997?
“I’m super excited about it,” Jacobs told the Union-Tribune at the time of his company’s $18 million, 20-year naming rights windfall, given him in a backstage deal with then-mayor Susan Golding and city manager Jack McGrory. The arrangement also included renaming nearby Stadium Way to Qualcomm Way, providing the company with a lucrative plug on Interstate 8 exit signs, seen by hundreds of thousands of drivers each month.
The super-rich La Jollan could similarly get a bargain-basement deal on naming rights in the heart of Balboa Park, though the issue could ultimately end up before voters.
When the controversial proposal was first rolled out by Faulconer in July, Jacobs told the Union-Tribune he expected unnamed others in addition to himself to come forward with private cash for the costly project, saying, "There have been indications of some very substantial support and I’m reasonably sure that we can be successful and that’s probably largely without any support from my family."
Leading to speculation that Jacobs may have to find other donors — or obtain another cut-rate naming-rights deal with the mayor — is the fact that two of the mogul's sons, Paul and Jeff, have reached what are said to be costlydivorce settlements with their ex-wives, raising questions about how much money the clan might be willing to come up with for the Balboa Park deal. Qualcomm, on the other hand, is widely thought to be good for the money.
This coming Monday's (November 14) docket item engineered by Faulconer avoids specific mention of Jacobs or other potential sponsors, saying the action would "approve necessary actions...to accept donations for the previously approved project."
In addition, the mayor would be empowered "to negotiate and execute one or more agreements, for and on behalf of the City, to accept private donations for the Project in a cumulative amount estimated to be $30 million, and to deposit said funds in a special revenue fund."
The resolution would also authorize Faulconer "to award a construction contract with the lowest responsible and reliable bidder in an amount not to exceed $75 million." Because just $30 million of private money is expected, taxpayers would have to borrow a currently estimated $39 million for the controversial road and parking garage complex. Other public taxes, including sales tax proceeds, would make up the $75 million balance.
(The item on Monday's docket authorizes taxpayer debt funding of up to $50 million.)
The relatively low level of private funding for the project is raising eyebrows among inside observers, who note that the talks between Faulconer and Jacobs have been cloaked in the same curtain of secrecy that shrouded details of his endorsement deal for the failed Chargers stadium measure.
In that case, Faulconer foes accused the mayor of privately wheeling and dealing for his political future with the Chargers-owning Spanos clan of Stockton.
Similarly, the mayor's relationship with the Jacobs family and Qualcomm has been marked by Qualcomm's well-timed financial largesse.
As reported here, documents released by the city in August after a request under the California Public Records Act show the mayor's first meeting with Jacobs on the matter was scheduled at the billionaire's La Jolla estate on March 17.
Six days after that appointment was made, campaign records show, Faulconer, then a candidate for reelection, was the quiet beneficiary of contributions by four Qualcomm executives — Christine Trimble, Christine Thoene, Daniel Torpey, and William Maheu — totaling $1300. Four days after that, $1050 came from Qualcomm human resources executive vice president Michelle Stirling of Poway.
On March 31, following the Jacobs-Faulconer meeting, Paul Jacobs, son of Irwin, and Qualcomm's executive chairman, came up with $1000. A day after that, Qualcomm executive vice president and general counsel Donald Rosenberg gave $1000 and the company's senior director of public affairs Molly Gavin donated $500.
The firm's August 1, 2016, lobbying disclosure filing shows, senior vice president of government affairs William Bold delivered $1050 on April 28. A mayoral fundraiser sponsored by company executives the previous November garnered $9275 for Faulconer's cause, disclosure filings revealed.
But the mayor’s contribution-paved path to closing his deal with Jacobs could falter — and his political standing drop even lower — if opponents organize a referendum drive against a city ordinance set for approval as part of the package on next week's docket.
The ordinance scheduled for council approval would provide for a "Site Lease, a Facilities Lease, a Bond Purchase Agreement and a Continuing Disclosure Certificate and authorizing the execution, delivery and performance of an Indenture by the Public Facilities Financing Authority of the City of San Diego, and approving and authorizing the issuance and sale of the Authority’s lease revenue bonds (Balboa Park parking related public improvements) in an aggregate principal amount not to exceed $50,000,000 and approving other documents and actions in connection therewith."
In plain language, explains one city hall insider, the ordinance would allow the city to issue so-called lease revenue bonds, thereby avoiding voter approval of general obligation debt, but potentially exposing the deal to a referendum effort if sufficient signatures were gathered to put the borrowing before voters.
In that case, political observers opine, Faulconer and the new city council would likely pull the deal rather than face the electorate in the wake of the Chargers ballot debacle.
Ironically, the National Football League dismissed Faulconer’s 2015 Mission Valley Chargers public-money stadium scheme on those very grounds, calling out a lengthy list of what it said were risks of the proposal, including “litigation related to other aspects of the project including the city’s proposed sale of lease-revenue bonds,” and “the inherent uncertainty of a referendum vote.”
Whether foes of the mayor could mount such an effort regarding the Jacobs park bulldozing plan, or the mayor would bulldoze a legal loophole to end-run voters with his $50 million debt issue, remains to be seen. In the meantime, six council votes are required to adopt the funding measure on Monday's agenda, per the docket item.