Why does San Diego city council need free food?

Council members collect about $54,000 a year. The mayor gets $72,000.

Back in February, while gas prices were soaring and radio talk-show host Roger Hedgecock was railing against big oil, a group of San Diego city councilmembers and their aides traveled to Long Beach for a firsthand look at the situation -- courtesy of Arco, the giant oil company. The tab for the field trip, including catered breakfast, boat excursions to Arco's off-loading complex, and full-course dinner with Arco Products Co. president Roger Truitt, came to $100 a head, with transportation, breakfast, lunch, and a $10 "keepsake," according to Arco.

Arco's guests included councilwomen Valerie Stalling's and Christine Kehoe. Council staffers who joined the tour included Chris Cameron of the office of Councilman Harry Mathis, Michael Wilson from George Stevens's office, and Byron Wear's staffer Rudy Alvar, according to lobbyist disclosure records on file with the city.

Arco is just one of the dozens of companies and wealthy individuals with special interests to plead at San Diego's city hall and before the county board of supervisors who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Everything from European trips to free lunches, to bottles of wine, to Chargers and Padres games have been lavished on local elected officials and their staff members. The collective tab for the care and feeding of this free-lunch bunch -- no doubt passed on to the customers of the businesses that pay for the freebies -- extends easily into the six figures.

While most rank-and-file city employees pay for their own lunches, dinners, Padres tickets, and nightclub hopping, many inhabitants of the city council's plush tenth-floor suites regularly dine with lobbyists willing to ingratiate themselves with those who can make or break their real estate project or city contract. And the trend is increasing. Following the examples of sports moguls Alex Spanos and John Moores -- who many believe purchased their way into multimillion-dollar, taxpayer-subsidized stadium deals by buying off councilmembers and their staffs with free food, drinks, and entertainment -- local lobbyists have escalated the war of the freebies.

Until next year, reporting of gifts to city employees is on the honor system. Councilmembers file a state-required conflict-of-interest statement once a year in April, in which they are supposed to itemize the gifts they received the year before. But skeptics noticed many inconsistencies in the number of gifts reported by the councilmembers and their staffers: some reported many more lunches and dinners and gifts than others. This led to suspicions that the councilmembers were forgetting some of the more compromising gifts they received. Without an independent form of verification, there was no way of knowing whether they were telling the truth.

Last year, embarrassed by a series of money-laundering scandals involving city council campaign contributions from developers who subsequently received favorable treatment, the council adopted a change in the city's lobbyist-disclosure law. It now requires that lobbyists file statements disclosing their clients and how much they paid, along with a list of the gifts, including free lunches, dinners, and tickets, that they gave to city employees. If the politicians' accounts of their spending don't agree with those filed by their benefactors, enforcement action can be taken. Or at least that's how it's supposed to work. The system won't be tested until San Diego city councilmembers file this year's expenditure reports next April and the reports can be matched with the new lobbyist statements now being filed each quarter. In the meantime, the honor system prevails.

Why do politicians need free food? Many of them, such as San Diego county supervisor Bill Horn, are said to be independently wealthy. They all make enough money, at least by most people's standards, to pay their own way at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Members of the San Diego City Council, for instance, collect about $54,000 a year. The mayor gets $72,000. They also get car allowances and various other perks, including free parking at city hall and at the airport. But that city council salary doesn't appear to go far enough when hobnobbing at some of the city's more exclusive nightspots, as members of the council and the board of supervisors are wont to do. And covering all those political benefits, where the tab can run more than $500 per seat, can no doubt stretch a budget to the breaking point.

Freeloading isn't limited to San Diego's city council and its staff. In fact, the county board of supervisors reports receiving more freebies than the city council, although some skeptics think that the city council is failing to disclose everything it gets, which they say creates the unfair appearance that the board is getting more in gifts than the council. Case in point: the free airport-parking cards received by both the board and the city council, as well as many other politicos around the county. Many members of the board report the parking; the city council doesn't. Some members deny using their cards. Others say that city attorney Casey Gwinn, who also gets a free parking card, told them they didn't have to report it. Of course, Gwinn didn't report his either.

What else didn't he report? Who knows? Gwinn is the chief enforcement officer for the city, so he's not likely to turn himself in or ask somebody else to investigate him or the city council, the members of which he's supposed to keep a wary eye on. Except for free meals and hotel rooms from the California League of Cities, Gwinn reports receiving no gifts. Not even a lunch or a bouquet of flowers.

Mel Shapiro, a longtime city hall watchdog, recently raised more doubt about the city's lobbyist-reporting procedures when he questioned why it was that John Moores and Larry Lucchino, who have been described in media accounts as often meeting privately with the city council to lobby on behalf of their giant downtown stadium project, haven't registered as lobbyists. According to statements on file at the city, the Padres have only one registered lobbyist, Kris Michell. Shapiro's inquiry to the city clerk's office, which oversees the filings, was referred to none other than City Attorney Gwinn, who has yet to release an opinion.

Some city-elected officials, who always seem to have a good excuse to party and scarf down free food and booze, do report at least a portion of the largesse they benefited from. Take Harry Mathis, who represents San Diego's first district on the city council. The Hotel Motel Association gave him four dinners worth $102. The Super Bowl Host Committee gave him two tickets to the "NFL Experience" at the Super Bowl and a souvenir football worth a total of $208. Somebody named Deborah Horwitz gave him two aerospace dinner tickets worth $190. The Hard Rock Cafe gave him a jacket valued at $275. The Hall of Champions gave him admission to its Champions dinner ($65), its Touchdown dinner ($80), and a sports lunch ($15). Cloud Nine Shuttle paid for his attendance at a Holiday Bowl lunch ($70).

Second district councilman Byron Wear said he got a $20 congressional lunch ticket from Pacific Bell, a $50 ticket to a Museum of Contemporary Art dinner, two tickets to a $50 Chamber of Commerce dinner from Solar Turbines, and a $75 holiday picnic basket from weight-loss drug company Metabolife. He also reported he'd gotten a $200 admission to the "Insights" program from the Chamber of Commerce and a $60 T-shirt and bag from Elite Racing.

Wear's third district colleague Christine Kehoe said she picked up a $50 lunch from UCSD's San Diego Dialogue, a $150 floral arrangement from the Padres, and Old Globe tickets worth $75. She also reported $250 worth of "booth rental" from the Adams Avenue Business Association. Compared to others, a paltry take. Was she telling the truth? There's no way to verify.

In the fourth district, George Stevens says he got $140 worth of roses from Padres owners John Moores and Larry Lucchino and a Charger polo shirt worth $45. He said he stayed three nights at the "West Bay Bahia Hotel," the value of which he pegged at $159, a rate not usually available to the average tourist. The Bahia is on land leased by the city to the Evans family and has long been the subject of controversy regarding how much public space along the shores of Mission Bay the city council has let it gobble up.

Among her eight city council colleagues, fifth-district councilwoman Barbara Warden reported the most goodies received. Her take included a guest pass for free movies at Pacific Theatres, which she valued at $100, a discount card at Carvers Restaurant worth $50, admission to the Chamber of Commerce's "Insights" conference, worth $225, from Cush Automotive Group. (Owner Steve Cushman is a city council appointee to the city-owned and subsidized corporation that runs the convention center.) The San Diego Super Bowl Host Committee gave her a ticket worth $100 to its "Go West" party, the Padres gave her food and beverage she said was worth $40 and a bottle of wine she valued at $35. (Other elected officials who got bottles of wine from the Padres said they were worth $50.)

Warden also got $60 tickets to the city-subsidized San Diego Film Commission's gala. She received two tickets to the Holiday Bowl worth $92 and a Holiday Bowl dinner valued at $40, thanks to bowl sponsor Culligan.

Over in the sixth district, Councilwoman Valerie Stallings's gift declaration was quite meager in comparison to Warden's. She said she got a $185 scarf from Tiffany's and two dozen roses from the Padres, along with a book worth $35. Similarly, seventh district councilwoman Judy McCarty's disclosure statement was thin. She said she got a commemorative football from the Super Bowl Host Committee worth $185 and admission to an Alzheimer's Association fundraising dinner worth $100. The eighth district's Juan Vargas also took few freebies, at least according to his report. San Diego Playgoers gave him two tickets to Miss Saigon worth $114, and the Padres gave him baseball tickets he said were worth $140.

Mayor Susan Golding reported getting two tickets to the La Jolla Playhouse worth $60, two San Diego Symphony tickets she valued at $50, and Padres tickets from John Moores worth $184. Golding's biggest bonanza came in the form of a free trip to Hong Kong, thanks to the Port of San Diego, which picked up her $5056 travel tab. The British government was talked into giving Golding $2797.53 to pay for her tour of the British Isles, in which, according to her disclosure statement, she "met with British ministries of England, Scotland, and Ireland to provide advice on municipal affairs." Golding also went to Washington, D.C., at least once, where $550.60 in "hotel expenses" were paid for by the Heritage Foundation. There was no word on who paid her airfare.

City council staffers also got to partake of free offerings from a long line of lobbyists. When he was a Chargers executive, Richard Ledford gave Barbara Howard, a staffer with Councilwoman Christine Kehoe, a $45 ticket to a Chargers vs. Denver game. He also gave two press-level tickets worth $116 to the same game to Paul McNeil, a staffer for Mayor Golding. Kris Michell, a lobbyist for the Padres, took Susan Golding to a $43.35 breakfast at the Grand Hyatt in New York during the World Series.

Once back in San Diego, Michell sprung for a $30.81 meal at Dobson's for Kimberly Layton, Golding's chief of staff. The Padres lobbyist also picked up a $23.52 tab at Dobson's restaurant for Teresa Silvers, another Golding assistant, and paid for food worth $17.33 eaten by Jim Madaffer, chief of staff for Councilwoman Judy McCarty. Michell also paid $33.34 for food and beverage consumed by Victoria Hamilton, executive director of the city's Arts and Culture Commission, at the Wyndham Emerald Plaza hotel downtown.

Manny Aguilar, from the Pacific Telesis Group, reported lunching at Horton Plaza's Panda Inn with Colin Rice, chief of staff for Councilman Juan Vargas. The tab was $14.70. Aguilar took Theresa Miller, an assistant to the mayor, to lunch at Horton Plaza's California Cafe Bar and Grill for $11.04. Toni Atkins, a staffer for third district councilwoman Christine Kehoe, enjoyed $9.70 of Aguilar's hospitality at the Panda Inn.

While Golding likes travel, county supervisors seem to prefer enjoying their free pleasures closer to home. Take first district county supervisor Greg Cox. He reported getting a ticket to last year's "Super Bowl Celebration" worth $75 from the Association of General Contractors. The San Diego Unified Port District gave him two tickets worth $125 to the grand opening gala for Lindbergh Field's controversial new terminal. The port also sprang for two dinner tickets worth $50 and a ticket to a lunch worth $15.

The Deputy Sheriffs' Association gave Cox two tickets valued at $90 to an installation dinner. UCSD's San Diego Dialogue gave him a $50 lunch ticket, and Enova, the big local utility, gave him two dinner tickets worth $220 and two reception tickets worth $40, along with a box of cookies valued at $25.

La Jollan Jackie Littlefield, who owns downtown's Spreckels Theatre, gave Cox four tickets to a play worth $205. McMillan Co., a local developer, gave him two tickets to an "education dinner" worth $85. Pacific Gateway Group, the consulting outfit that was recently the focus of a grand-jury report criticizing the San Diego City Council for using favoritism in the awarding of a low-flush toilet contract to the firm, gave Cox two dinner tickets worth $57.38. An outfit called Pacific Waste, apparently unrelated to Pacific Gateway, chipped in a $75 ticket to a golf tournament.

Edco Disposal, a big county trash hauler, gave Cox two tickets to a charity gala for "Camp Able" valued at $120. The Del Mar Fair, run by the state, gave him four free tickets to the fair, along with dinner and a concert, worth $112. He got two dinner tickets worth $70 and two tickets to the North County Chamber of Commerce installation worth $60 from Pacific Bell.

Western Water Co., which is trying to make money by buying up private water rights and reselling them to counties and cities, gave Cox two tickets to a Padres game valued at $70. He got two luncheon tickets from the Viejas Casino worth $70. The San Diego Taxpayers Association, criticized by some for being too cozy with big business, contributed a lunch ticket worth $27.99. The Industrial Environmental Association, which lobbies on behalf of business against overly stringent environmental-protection laws, gave him two lunches, one worth $40 and the other valued at $21.55.

Padres owners Becky and John Moores gave Cox a bottle of "Padres commemorative wine," worth $50, at a "Padres game viewing party," worth $25. At the Hard Rock Cafe's grand opening, he bagged a free leather jacket worth $215. An outfit called Maximus gave him a ticket to a "taxpayer lunch" worth $50 and a dinner worth $45.

It was much the same story for second district Supervisor Dianne Jacob. Courtesy of Moores and Lucchino, she got into the Padres home opener for free, on a ticket worth just $18, and also received the commemorative $50 bottle of wine. Nelson Communications Group, which lobbies for a host of special interests, gave her a ticket worth $85 to an event called "98 Team San Diego." The Alpine Community Center gave her a ticket worth $110 to its "celebration gala," and the Center for Children Foundation gave her an admission to its annual dinner worth $90. She also got tickets to four dinners valued at a total of $250 from the Boys and Girls Clubs of East County.

The law firm of Gray, Cary let Jacob into its "Silver Tongue Competition" on a free dinner ticket valued at $90. A campaign committee called "Taxpayers for the Convention Center," which last year convinced voters to approve a San Diego city taxpayer-subsidized convention center expansion, picked up a $27.90 lunch tab. The Barona Band of Mission Indians, who own a big casino in Jacob's district, gave her a $65 "greeter sculpture." Bill Geppert, the peripatetic manager of Cox Communications who's always eager to expand his company's information empire and who's courting the county for a computer contract, gave her two tickets worth $80 to the San Diego Symphony's Summer Pops concerts. Another concert and food for four was given to her by the Del Mar Fair. Wal-Mart, which has been expanding in the county, gave her a floral bouquet worth $100. And two tickets to the "Super Bowl Kick-off Gala," worth $150, came her way from Children's Hospital.

Over in the third district, Supervisor Pam Slater apparently preferred the cultural to the political side of life. She went to a fundraiser at Quail Botanical Gardens on tickets worth $70 given her by that group. The San Diego Dance Theatre gave her two tickets worth $50. The Mainly Mozart festival gave her an annual dinner ticket worth $100, and the San Diego Rep, a theatre group, gave her six tickets worth $156. Slater also attended the Starlight Musical Theatre on four tickets worth $112 and got two tickets from the San Diego Performing Arts League worth $60.

Slater was also popular at the San Diego Museum of Art, where she got two tickets for a dinner and tour worth $45 and another two dinner tickets and four entry tickets worth a total of $190. Wealthy winemakers John and Sally Thornton gave her two tickets to a concert at their Temecula winery worth $70. The Thorntons also provided entry to a reception and lunch worth $55. Cox Communications gave Slater four tickets to a "musical performance" worth $160, and the Old Globe gave her two tickets to a "performance" worth $70. Pacific Bell also foot the bill for Slater's attendance at an unnamed "performance" worth $87, and the California Ballet gave her three tickets worth $210 to a "dinner and performance."

Sports were another of Slater's interests, to judge by the freebies she accepted last year. She got four $28 tickets to the Toshiba Tennis Tournament, two Padres opening-day tickets and a book from John Moores worth a total of $95, two more Padres tickets from Moores worth $100, yet another two Padres tickets worth $70 from Western Water Co., two tickets to a stadium tailgate party, and two tickets to the Holiday Bowl worth a total of $142 from bowl sponsor Culligan.

Slater also went to the Port of San Diego's "Airport Gala" on two free tickets worth $125 and showed up at the Children's Hospital and Health Center's benefit dinner with two free tickets worth $150. She attended gratis a dinner sponsored by Las Damas de Fairbanks with tickets worth $100. Four Square Productions, a lobbying and political-campaign firm owned in part by Democratic state senator Steve Peace, gave her a $175 ticket to an awards dinner. John Baldwin provided one luncheon ticket worth $50. The Boys and Girls Club of Carlsbad gave her two fundraiser tickets worth $150. Paul Ecke of the Ecke Poinsettia Ranch gave her eight plants worth $64, and the Rancho Santa Fe Association, which represents the homeowners of that wealthy North County enclave, gave her a gift basket valued at $85.

In the fourth district, Supervisor Ron Roberts was also a sports fan. The Century Club of San Diego gave him two "badges & pkg pass" worth $150. Craig Irving gave him admittance to a golf tournament valued at $50. Parking lot czar Scott Jones provided free baseball tickets worth $186. Ubiquitous Padres owner John Moores gave Roberts two baseball tickets worth $75, along with the now-familiar $50 bottle of special-label Padres wine.

The San Diego Sports Arena, owned by Ron Hahn, son of the late shopping-center magnate Ernie Hahn, came through with ice-skating tickets worth $160, and the United Way of San Diego gave golf-tournament tickets valued at $71. Golf tickets worth $87 also came from the San Diego Apartment Owners Association. The Holiday Bowl Committee gave Roberts two game and pregame tickets worth a total of $208.

When he wasn't on the golf course or at the stadium, Roberts could be found on the rubber-chicken circuit. The Deputy Sheriffs' Association gave him a $90 ticket to its installation dinner. Biotech kingpin Peter Preuss gave him a banquet ticket worth $60. Scripps Institute gave him an awards-dinner ticket worth $60. The San Diego Restaurant Association gave him a banquet ticket valued at $130. He got a dinner ticket worth $80 from Cubic Corp. executive Walter Zable. The San Diego Economic Development Corporation gave him an $85 ticket to its annual dinner. Shopping center owner Elliott Feurstein provided a fruit basket worth $75, Paul Ecke gave poinsettia plants worth $64, and Mike Ellis contributed a gift basket valued at $50.

North County's fifth district supervisor Bill Horn, a wealthy Republican who says he wants to run for U.S. Senate against Democrat Diane Feinstein next year, holds the record for the most freebies of 1998. He went to a Super Bowl lunch aboard a tall ship in San Diego harbor, courtesy of Nissan North America, valued at $50. Harvey White of Qualcomm gave him a Super Bowl ticket with a face value of $275 but probably worth much more on the street. He got a lunch ticket worth $56 from American Medical Response. The National Electrical Contractors Association gave him two dinner tickets valued at $50. The Deputy Sheriffs' Association let him and a friend into its installation dinner on a freebie valued at $90. An outfit called Rally for Children gave him $50 worth of tickets to a fundraising gala. Pacific Bell sponsored him for $90 worth of admissions to the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce installation dinner.

The San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. gave Horn an $85 dinner ticket. The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center gave him tickets to its 25th anniversary dinner worth $96. The Insurance Brokers and Agents of San Diego gave him a ticket to its Insurance Day lunch worth $50. The San Diego Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Commission gave him two $40 tickets to its graduation ceremony. American Indian Services gave him a $50 admission to its annual golf tournament reception and dinner. The Del Mar Fair gave him two dinners and a lunch worth $100. UCSD Medical Center Auxiliary gave him a $33 ticket to its Padres kick-off lunch and a $150 ticket to its "Evening with the San Diego Padres."

Sue Loftin of the California Ballet came through with $200 worth of ballet awards-dinner tickets. The San Diego Building and Trades Council gave him two $100 tickets to its John Lyons memorial dinner, and the Associated General Contractors gave him a $100 ticket to its awards banquet.

The Casa del Zorro Hotel -- owned by Helen Copley, who also owns the Union-Tribune -- gave him one complimentary night during the Borrego Festival in what the report said was a $120 hotel room. The hotel also gave Horn two tickets to a film commission event worth $60.

Horn also got eight tickets to the Wild Animal Park from the San Diego Zoological Society worth $100, two tickets from Robert Hallam of Dimensions I to a Lincoln Club installation dinner worth $70, and a $50 ticket to a San Diego Taxpayers Association lunch from the McMillan Co. Of course, Padres owner John Moores was also there to spread the wealth. He gave Horn that special bottle of Padres wine, along with a book about the National League and three tickets to "Fleet Week Day at the Padres," for a grand total of $130. Judy McCarty of the San Diego City Council was listed as the donor of two Padres tickets and "food and beverage," said to be worth exactly $56.

Over at the San Diego County Water Authority, board members have been wined and dined by Montgomery Watson Americas, a multinational engineering firm that specializes in building billion-dollar water-treatment plants. Montgomery Watson was all set to build the controversial sewage-into-drinking-water plant for San Diego until the city council felt the political heat and cancelled the project. Harold Ball, a board member from La Mesa, and Warren H. Buckner, another La Mesan, both reported getting two dinners worth $33.10 and $36.10 from Montgomery. The law firm of Best, Best and Krieger also gave both water board members dinners valued the same as Montgomery's gift.

James L. Bowersox, city manager of Poway, is also a member of the water board. He reported getting a free dinner and baseball tickets in July worth $92.64 from the El Cajon law firm McDougal, Love, Eckis, Smith and Boehmer. In September, Bowersox says he got dinner and theater tickets from Pacific Bell worth $120. Claude Lewis, the mayor of Carlsbad and also a water-board member, reported going to a $190 "Chamber of Commerce annual dinner" in February of last year courtesy of Larry Clemens of Hillman Properties, who Lewis lists as a "home and hotel developer."

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