'Sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees." That opening line of a recent newspaper advertisement was a plea to look beyond controversies surrounding the Padres' proposed baseball stadium and maintain "the vision" of a revitalized East Village in downtown San Diego.
The ad, a pitch for continued public support of the stadium, was endorsed by 22 civic and religious organizations. They included many groups that had previously remained neutral on the $411 million project, which is now clouded by lawsuits, adverse environmental impacts, and disputes with East Village property owners.
When asked about the $13,979, full-page, full-color ad in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the organizations -- ranging from Episcopal Community Services to the San Diego Convention Center -- communicated they had not paid for it. Yet they did not know who had picked up the tab.
Some of the organizations' officials had read the ad before endorsing it; others had not. Some obtained permission from their boards; others did not. Some considered the message political while others called it educational -- despite the ad's "Yes on C" logo. By lending their names to the stadium, the organizations, most of which are tax-exempt, became part of a new organization, Citizens for San Diego's Future, what one founder calls "a very loose federation." So loose is the federation -- which exists in name only -- some of its organizations didn't know they were members.
"I'm not aware of Citizens for San Diego's Future," said Marco Li Mandri, executive director of Little Italy Association. "The Padres asked if they could put our name on the list supporting the ballpark. I'm assuming the Padres paid for the ad."
Officials for the Padres and its advertising agency have not returned numerous telephone calls inquiring about the ad, so it's uncertain whether they helped write or edit it, supplied artwork or money. Padres officials solicited at least six organizations to sign the ad but did not include the team among the 22 endorsers. While the ad highlighted the Padres' plan to spend $115 million on the stadium and added the $50 million pledged by San Diego's redevelopment agency, it neglected to mention the remaining cost to taxpayers, the $225 million in bonds to be issued by the city.
Mitrovich, a civic leader who has become one of the Padres' biggest cheerleaders, is one of the few people who will discuss what he calls "a limited advertising campaign," which printed a second ad last week and promises another to come in the Union-Tribune. While effusive in his comments about the need for a downtown baseball stadium and lavish in his praise of team owner John Moores's financial commitment to the project, Mitrovich is somewhat elusive about details of the ad campaign, which includes radio.
When first asked who footed the bill, Mitrovich said, "We're in the process of raising the money for the ad," implying it had not yet been paid for. But representatives in the Union-Tribune's display advertising department said political ads, such as the one appearing on page B-10 July 28, must be paid in advance. Informed of that apparent discrepancy and asked whether the newspaper made an exception and extended credit, Mitrovich then said the Committee of 2000 paid. He helped found the committee, a tax-exempt political organization, in 1997 to support the ballpark. Some of its members, including mostly business executives, lawyers, professionals, and community leaders, signed the second full-page, full-color ad published August 12 on page A-20 of the Union-Tribune.
Composing the first ad was a collaborative effort involving others, Mitrovich said, but he would not identify the writers, editors, and artists or say whether that group included Padres officials. However, the idea for forming a broad-based citizen group and ad campaign grew from a meeting Padres officials held for community leaders July 7, before the team played the San Francisco Giants. "The feeling was the Padres are in trouble on this project," Mitrovich recalled, noting that news about the stadium was "negative." Dominating headlines and broadcasts then were the county grand jury's allegations that Mayor Susan Golding had improperly granted favors to influence the vote on Proposition C. "A number of people spoke at this meeting and said, 'We need to be heard.' People need to know support for the ballpark hasn't diminished.'"
Although he didn't address the 70 or so people gathered, Mitrovich said, he jumped into action the next day. Like a long vine that attaches itself to individual trees in the forest, Mitrovich is threaded throughout the endorsement list.
It was easy for the silver-tongued, politically astute Mitrovich to approach existing stadium boosters and woo newcomers. Besides serving as chairman of the Committee of 2000, he is the founder and president of the City Club of San Diego, a public forum that hosts celebrity speakers. He also is the elected president of the Ecumenical Council of San Diego County, an association of 112 Christian churches. Mitrovich called his alma mater, Point Loma Nazarene University, and quickly got the okay of the public relations vice president. Mitrovich also sought approval from Episcopal Community Services, San Diego Hall of Champions, San Diego International Sports Council, and the Catfish Club, another public forum.
The Rescue Mission would seem a tougher sell. Its men's shelter, thrift shop, donations warehouse, and other facilities serving the poor are so close to the stadium site, the environmental impact report predicts the mission's loss would have a significant impact on the homeless. Mitrovich, however, has been acquainted with the mission's new chief executive, James Jackson Jr., and Jackson's family for decades. Without consulting the board, Jackson gave the mission's blessing. His rationale -- "The politics of the situation are done. The vote was last November" -- echoes Mitrovich's explanation of why the promotion is merely educational: "Now that Prop C is voted on, it's not a political issue anymore."
Not every organization succumbed to Mitrovich's powers of persuasion.
When Mitrovich sought the Salvation Army's backing of the ballpark -- identifying himself as president of the Ecumenical Council -- "He said, 'It's not political,' " recalled Major David Hudson, that charity's divisional secretary. "I said, 'It really is political.' There are two divided camps. We serve both camps. There's nothing to be gained from endorsing something like the ballpark."
Charities such as the Salvation Army and Rescue Mission may discuss issues affecting communities and even offer opinions, but they often remain neutral to protect their tax-exempt status and to avoid offending donors. The Internal Revenue Service prohibits such 501(c)(3) organizations from supporting political candidates or engaging in partisan politics and severely restricts lobbying that would influence legislation.
Although he personally advocates the ballpark, Mitrovich kept the City Club neutral on the topic until the recent ad. "We do not take positions on political issues. We weren't involved in Prop C."
Such caution may have been unnecessary, given the uncertain status of the City Club, which accepts donations and charges money to finance public events. Since the 1970s, guest speakers have ranged from right-wing columnist George Will to "gonzo" journalist Tom Wolfe. This year, the club has featured Tijuana development tycoon Carlos Bustamante and mayoral candidate Ron Roberts, among others.
An IRS spokesman in Los Angeles said the federal government recognizes the City Club as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization. But in 1991 the California Attorney General's Office asked the Franchise Tax Board to suspend the club's tax-exempt status for having failed to file annual reports. By then, the tax board had already suspended the City Club as a corporation because it had not received any financial information either. Public records show Mitrovich tried to make things right in 1993 by submitting reports for 1985 through 1988. "I regret this oversight," Mitrovich wrote to the attorney general's office. "We will be current from this point forward." But no subsequent reports were filed, according to state files.
When asked for the City Club's federal 990 financial statements two weeks ago, Mitrovich and his lawyer at first failed to respond. When presented last week with the IRS's written rules requiring 501(c)(3) organizations to make copies available to the public, Mitrovich's lawyer offered an explanation. "We haven't been able to find any recent 990s. That leads us to believe they weren't filed," said John Howard of San Diego. "We may not have to file them, but we're going to prepare them anyway."
At some point, the City Club ceased existing as a corporation and became an unincorporated association, Howard said. Now it plans to become a corporation again, seek tax-exempt status, broaden its focus, and "operate on a more sophisticated basis," he said.
If the City Club's annual gross receipts were $25,000 or less, it would not be required to file 990 forms. The few state documents available show the club received $79,000 to $102,000 a year in the late 1980s. Donors included the Hotel Del Coronado and McDonald's Corp. heiress Joan Kroc. During the early 1980s, J. David "Jerry" Dominelli bankrolled the City Club and his brokerage employed Mitrovich as community relations director, according to Captain Money and the Golden Girl, written by Donald C. Bauder, the Union-Tribune's financial columnist. The book describes how Mitrovich helped Roger Hedgecock get Dominelli's financial backing for his mayoral campaign. After federal regulators exposed Dominelli as a con artist and his La Jolla investment firm as a Ponzi scheme, Hedgecock nearly ended up in prison too. When Mitrovich resigned before that point -- emerging from the scandal unscathed -- he disavowed any knowledge of the $200 million scam and declared that the rewards of local political campaigns were too few, according to Bauder's account.
Not inclined to keep a low profile or stay silent, Mitrovich likes to drop names, identify himself as a liberal Kennedy Democrat, write editorials for the Union-Tribune, and criticize the media. He turned the baseball stadium into a crusade in late 1997 by starting the Committee of 2000, which he describes as an independent citizens' committee that works closely with the Padres. An affiliated political action committee operates on contributions, which totaled less than $4000 from October through June, according to state records.
Like the committee, Citizens for San Diego's Future was created to express widespread support of the ballpark, but few if any of the member organizations helped write the ad. The day it ran, the Union-Tribune published a news item about the group and a commentary written by Laurie Black, president of the Downtown San Diego Partnership. She wrote: "The best development opportunity in San Diego's history has been placed in jeopardy because, once again, some have chosen to stop progress, rather than working together with the rest of us to advance our city's common good."
Mitrovich didn't have details about the rest of the promotion. "There's some debate about the timing and the content." Black said, "We're talking about having a lunch to raise money for the ads."
Endorsers of the second ad were individuals, not identified by organization or occupation. However, there was some predictable duplication from the first ad, such as Ky Snyder, president of the San Diego International Sports Council, who referred calls to the Padres, and -- in the middle of the alphabetical list -- Mitrovich himself. Some real estate executives with a stake downtown signed, including Craig Irving and Steve Williams, who are members of the Committee of 2000. Heading the list was San Diego lawyer Mike Aguirre, a co-chair of the Yes on C campaign.
Sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees.