As the California State University system pushes forward with its efforts to grab a major chunk of Mission Valley for "SDSU West" and a new stadium costing a currently estimated $250 million, negotiations between the university and San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer continue to be veiled in secrecy.
As previously reported, CSU has retained the services of influence peddling Sheppard Mullin to cut a closed-door deal for the former Qualcomm Stadium parcel with Faulconer, per a city-required lobbyist disclosure filing.
But the university system continues to refuse requests made under the California Public Records Act to reveal how much it has agreed to pay the firm, leading to speculation that total lobbying costs may wind up in the millions of dollars.
"The record which memorializes the retention agreement between the CSU and Sheppard Mullin is the retention agreement itself," wrote university counsel Sasha K. Danna in a February 25 email. "Agreements entered between CSU and outside legal firms are protected by the attorney-client privilege and attorney work product doctrine and will not be disclosed."
"CSU’s retention of Sheppard Mullin was a recent occurrence, and, to date, CSU has not received or paid any invoices. With respect to any future invoices, please note that attorney billing statements are also protected from disclosure under the attorney-client privilege and work product doctrine."
Absent details of how much and for what purposes the pricey lobbying firm is billing, taxpayers may never know how much cash is being used by the lobbyists for commonly-deployed blandishments, including travel, sports tickets, and dinner tabs for the negotiators.
In addition to a steady flow of campaign contributions, Sheppard Mullin has furnished an array of gifts to government officials across the state, including a Dodger ticket valued at $500 provided to a member of L.A.’s city Innovation and Performance Commission, Carl Cade, per a 2016 financial disclosure filing.
Over the past decade, records show Faulconer has raked in a total of $22,450 in campaign funding from a host of Shepard Mullin employees as he moved up from city council to the mayor's office, making him by far the biggest beneficiary of the firm's San Diego political giving. In addition to making direct contributions, the firm’s Christopher Neils is listed on Sheppard Mullin lobbying disclosure reports as having been a fundraiser for the mayor.
By comparison, Republican ex-councilman and former mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio, picked up a total of $8313 during his political career, courtesy of the firm's lawyers and administrators, and two-term GOP councilman Chris Cate, another building lobby ally, received $8950.
Having a friendly negotiating partner in Faulconer is especially important to SDSU. The current closed-door bargaining sessions, authorized by voters when they passed last year's Measure G regarding potential turnover of the 132-acre property to SDSU, are firmly under control of the mayor.
That is evidenced by a January 7 memorandum of law by City Attorney Mara Elliott which bars members of the city council from sitting in on the bargaining. "A Councilmember’s legislative function under the Charter does not extend to negotiating contract terms directly with a third party at the outset."
"Moreover, we believe a Councilmember’s direct involvement in contract negotiations, followed by that same Councilmember’s vote on the negotiated contract, would undermine the Charter’s system of checks and balances for City government."
Elliott's memorandum adds that the council thus has only a limited role to play, largely sidelining it from decision making and keeping the talks in the dark until a final deal is cut.
"The Council may ask the Mayor to provide informational updates regarding negotiations," the opinion says. "The Mayor 'shall inform the Council of any material facts or significant developments related to all matters under the jurisdiction of the Council.' Also, the Council may provide limited direction on real property negotiations through Closed Session discussions.”
The minutes of the most recent council closed session, held February 5, show there was no discussion of the Mission Valley deal. The February 19 meeting was not held and the next session isn't scheduled until later this month.