Inside the box

— Their old chairs on the San Diego City Council dais may be empty, but the same can't be said of their former seats in the city's skybox at Petco Park, where politicos and their pals, staffers, and political backers are wined and dined far above the madding crowd. According to sign-in sheets retrieved from the city under the state's Public Records Act, the free box seats belonging to council districts two and eight have seen plenty of use since Michael Zucchet and Ralph Inzunza departed. Both resigned within a week of their July 18 convictions on felony charges stemming from the FBI's strip club bribery investigation.

Ex-mayor Dick Murphy, who announced in April that he would quit in July, and members of his staff are also no strangers to the council's exclusive digs above left field. On July 16, the day after leaving office, Murphy and wife Jan were back in the box, hosting Bev and Doug Putnam, the records show. The day after that, Zucchet -- briefly acting as deputy mayor before his conviction -- took over the seats for a day. Of the three who signed in to use them, only the signature of one Jennifer Allen is legible.

But the queen of the ballpark box turns out to be Councilwoman Toni Atkins. On July 26, the day after she was officially elected deputy mayor, Atkins took charge of the mayoral tickets; combined with her standard council allotment of two, she currently controls six seats. On the first day, her guests included Hillcrest physician Pierre Rivet and AIDS fund-raiser Ron Ferrero. The next day, Atkins and her significant other, banker Jennifer LeSar, were present, along with four others.

At subsequent games during July and August, many more enjoyed the Atkins freebies, though a substantial number of signatures on the box's sign-in sheets -- intended to deter unscrupulous officials from scalping tickets -- are illegible. Names that could be read include David Lewis and Cynthia Lewis, Murphy's director of scheduling; Murphy's deputy policy advisor and website director, Leslie LaBonte, and Aubrey LaBonte-Clark; Murphy's policy and community affairs advisor, Donna Ascano; Atkins's administrative volunteer, Madeleine Paul; Murphy's director of economic development and binational affairs, Rudy Fernandez, and Delia Fernandez; Atkins's communication director and webmaster, George Biagi; Murphy's retirement system policy advisor, Steve Heyendal; former Atkins's staffer Stephen Russell; gay columnist and reporter Rex Wockner; and Shawn Ingram, director of development for the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center. Many of the ex-Murphy staffers are still on the city payroll, awaiting a new mayor who will decide whether to keep or fire them.

As for the box seats of the two resigned councilmen, records show that on July 26, Jennifer Elovitz and Howard Strauss used the seats assigned to District Two; Mike O'Neal and Brian Sherrod were in those used by District Eight. On July 28, according to the sheet, the District Two seats were empty, but District Eight's were occupied by Ahmad Solomon, a former Inzunza aide, and Dave Rodrigues.

On July 30, District Two was represented by Eric and Rachel Miller. A District Eight seat was signed for by Michele Heathman. On August 13, it was Jim and Jodie Muller in District Eight. On August 22, District Eight hosted Manny Delgado, a former Zucchet aide, and Ariel Castaneda, a former Inzunza official. On August 24, Doug Landerville and a woman whose signature couldn't be deciphered were in the District Two seats; on August 27, it was Krisi Brinegar , and on August 31, Doug Landerville again.

The city's skybox was secured in a backroom deal between Padres owner John Moores and then-city manager Jack McGrory after voters approved taxpayer financing for the new ballpark in 1998. In addition to free seats, ticket holders are entitled to a lavish spread of food and alcohol served inside the box if they come up with the bargain-basement price of $15.

The hands that feed According to recent financial-disclosure filings, the San Diego City Council isn't likely to go hungry any time soon. The San Diego Union-Tribune has been picking up the tab for Councilman Jim Madaffer's various breakfasts and lunches. In February, U-T editorialist Bill Osborne paid for a $15 noontime repast. In March, it was the turn of U-T columnist Logan Jenkins, who bought a $7.45 breakfast. Later that month, U-T editorial chief Bob Kittle was good for a $15 lunch. But if dining with old U-T scribes doesn't sound all that inspirational, Madaffer could also brag of a free pass to attend the grand opening of downtown's House of Blues, retail value: $79. Four days before his July 18 conviction in the Cheetahs case, ex-councilman Michael Zucchet got a $200 "hotel upgrade" from Brett Miller, developer of the splashy Tower 23 next to Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach. And rookie councilman Tony Young got a $150 ticket to the Kyoto Foundation dinner from failed school board candidate Miyo Reff. ... Kathryn Burton, who mounted an unsuccessful challenge to the reelection bid of San Diego city councilman Scott Peters, has been named a deputy city attorney by Michael Aguirre. She helped author the recent wastewater report accusing the city of overcharging ratepayers.

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