Eleanor Widmer 8:30 a.m., March 23
City accused of subverting public records law in lawsuit over Convention Center expansion
Lawsuit alleges that Chief of Staff for former mayor Jerry Sanders used private email accounts to broker a deal with labor union in exchange for support of $520 million expansion
San Diego's elected officials have had a long and well-documented history of backroom dealings. Whether it be a midnight deal to boost redevelopment funding or letting developers dictate the size and footprint of their development, residents often find themselves in the dark on important City issues.
With the widespread use of emails and instant access to them with a touch of a screen, public officials here and throughout the state are using private email accounts and personal cell phones to conduct city business and broker big development deals. Is it an issue of convenience or a way to avoid public scrutiny?
The law is clear. Any city business, regardless of device or method of transmission, is subject to California's Public Records Act.
In the last year alone, city attorneys in San Diego have repeatedly found themselves defending the City in court for refusing to release public documents and violating the state law.
San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith has been asked about the practice. Now, he and his attorneys will have to defend the city again, this time in a lawsuit from workers advocacy group Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, over the Project Labor Agreement (PLA) reached in the $520 million dollar expansion of San Diego's Convention Center.
The case could have widespread ramifications for former mayor Jerry Sanders and the fate of the convention center expansion.
The lawsuit alleges that Sanders, along with his Chief of Staff Julie Dubick, conspired with labor-union president turned California Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez to enter into a labor agreement with Clark Hunt construction groups in their bid to manage the massive overhaul. The backroom deal, according to the lawsuit, sidestepped Proposition A's ban on collective bargaining for all city-funded construction projects.
Emails obtained through a public records request, reveal that in the waning days of his term, Sanders and Dubick were fast at work to broker a deal that would end litigation filed by the labor unions and jumpstart the project.
In brokering the deal, Dubick made sure to use her private gmail account to set up meetings between Sanders and Gonzalez.
"Here is the suggested language [for the agreement]. Please confirm receipt to [gmail address]. See you at 2pm," wrote Dubick in a September 21, 2012 email to Gonzalez.
In her email, Dubick included the terms of the deal. Sanders would agree to skirt Proposition A and adopt a labor agreement similar to the one used for Petco Park. He would also meet with officials with Marriott Hotels to discuss labor issues. In return, Gonzalez would pledge her support for the project to the city council and Coastal Commission and drop all pending litigation over the expansion.
One week after Dubick's email, Clark Hunt was awarded the contract.
One month later, union affiliated groups dropped all three of their lawsuits which ranged from environmental concerns and objections over proper funding for the project.
But while the lawsuit focuses on what is believed to be a violation of Prop A, it's the ongoing use of private email accounts by public officials that continues to raise concerns.
In a court document, Geoffrey Willis, a lawyer from Sheppard-Mullin-Richter-Hampton, the firm representing the plaintiffs, recalled a conversation he had with Deputy City Attorney Thomas Zeleny a few weeks back regarding Dubick's use of private email accounts.
"Mr. Zeleny told me that the City 'might ask' Ms. Dubick if she would produce other public records from her private email accounts, but expected that she would tell him no. I asked Mr. Zeleny if he was aware that it was a widespread practice of the City for employees and elected officials to conduct official City business through private email accounts not a part of the City system and he said, 'for all I know, all of the City business was run through Julie Dubick's private email account...[pause] just joking."
Court documents show that Goldsmith has launched an investigation into whether Dubick's emails, and the subsequent deal, violated Proposition A.
Oddly enough, it was Sanders who pushed for a formal policy forbidding the use of personal email accounts for city business. The policy states that any and all communication including databases, spreadsheets, calendar entries, appointments, and notes which reside in part or in whole on any City computer or any other electronic system or equipment" should be made public.
But according to the lawsuit, upon entering his final months in office, Sanders apparently discarded the policy.
"Fundamentally failing to fulfill even basic government duties, the City of San Diego has engaged in a systematic program to hide public records from the public. This is not a simple technical violation of complex legal requirements but a widespread and concerted effort to prevent the public from having access to basic government dealings," reads the lawsuit.
Trial is scheduled to begin at 8:30am on July 12. Judge Joan Lewis will be presiding over the case.
Update: The trial has been continued to a later date meaning a possible settlement is in the works.
The City Attorney's Office failed to respond in time for publication to questions about the investigation. I will update the story when I hear back.