One week before a coalition of shipbuilders submitted more than 53,000 signatures to initiate a referendum aimed at overturning the city council's update of the Barrio Logan Community Plan, city attorney Jan Goldsmith was at work, meeting behind the scenes with the same shipbuilders and lobbyists to discuss the process.
Internal emails obtained by the Reader show Chris Wahl from Southwest Strategies, a lobbying firm hired by the Protect Our Jobs Coalition, contacted the City Attorney's Office to schedule a private meeting with Goldsmith.
"On behalf of my client, General Dynamics NASSCO, I would like to request a meeting next week, if possible with City Attorney Goldsmith," reads the opening passage from Wahl's October 24 email. "The purpose of the meeting is to discuss Barrio Logan issues, including next steps related to the referendum of the Community Plan."
Attendees, according to Wahl's email, were Matt Luxton, chief financial officer for NASSCO, Sarah Strang, the shipbuilder's director of communications, and Wahl.
On October 28, Goldsmith's assistant, Carmen Sandoval, responded, "Great, we will see you all then."
The executives and the city attorney then met behind closed doors on Tuesday, October 29, from 3:15 to 3:45 p.m., according to a calendar entry made by Goldsmith's Office.
On October 31, the coalition delivered the 53,000 signatures to the City Clerk's Office. Those signatures were gathered in less than one month's time at a cost of $140,000. The drive, however, wasn't without controversy. Complaints were made about alleged false statements made by the signature-gatherers who were camped outside grocery stores in search of support. The complaints focused on one false claim: that the Navy’s shipyard would leave town if the Community Plan Update was adopted, taking more than 42,000 jobs.
On November 14, the Environmental Health Coalition filed suit against the City Clerk’s Office and the Protect Our Jobs Coalition over the false claims, alleging the claims about the Navy leaving scared residents into signing the petition.
And yet, despite the city council having already voted in favor of the update, Goldsmith refused to stand beside them and refused to delay the validation until the allegations of false claims were looked into.
Faced with few options, the city council, on Tuesday, December 17, voted to send the referendum to the ballot. — but not without some choice words for Goldsmith.
"I would like to direct the city attorney to join the Environmental Health Coalition in opposing in court the efforts to roll back the council’s action," interim-mayor Todd Gloria said in his opening remarks before the vote, as transcribed by CityBeat. "A majority of this council has stood up for this plan, and I think that this city should be on record as supporting the plan."
In response to a question about the meeting, Goldsmith's spokesperson Tom Mitchell wrote on December 20, "NASSCO representatives came to the City Attorney’s office to inform us that the petition was going to be filed and ask about the City’s process. They were told that the City Clerk would outline the next steps." Mitchell said Maland issued that outline in a November 4 memo.
Community members and those fighting to defeat the referendum believe the city attorney shouldn't be meeting behind closed doors with any groups that are intent on overturning decisions made by the council.
"I am shocked and believe that it is unethical for the City Attorney to have this meeting," was the reaction from associate director for the Environmental Health Coalition Georgette Gomez upon learning of the meeting. "[Goldsmith's] office insisted to us that they were neutral. [The Environmental Health Coalition] is outraged that City Attorney Goldsmith appears to be conspiring with the shipyards against the community and the council."
Livia Borak, the attorney representing Gomez and the Environmental Health Coalition, agrees.
"A meeting with the proponents of the referendum is totally inappropriate," writes Borak. "It certainly raises questions in light of the city attorney’s position that his office is neutral on the matter and his purported unwillingness to help either side."