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Tuesday, Jul 23, 2024
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Government—Ballpark foe wins round over closed City Council sessions

A longtime ballpark opponent said he’s not entirely satisfied with what appears to be a successful challenge to the way the San Diego City Council discusses matters in closed session.

“It’s winning a battle, but not the war,” said Mel Shapiro, a Hillcrest political activist who questioned the city’s interpretation of the state’s Brown Act. The law permits elected officials to discuss certain issues privately behind closed doors for issues relating to personnel matters, litigation or real property negotiations.

Shapiro filed suit last November complaining the City Council was using the law to discuss all sorts of issues unrelated to buying or selling real estate as listed on the council agenda. Instead, the nine-member council took advantage of the closed session to talk about a variety of policy issues involving the Padres ballpark, particularly the financing of the $450 million project, Shapiro said.

Shapiro said he determined the council was holding such discussions after members routinely made references to matters including the city’s transient occupancy taxes , a 10 percent tax on hotel rooms , the number of hotels and rooms to be built in the ballpark district, and the environmental impact report on the ballpark.

All are policy matters and should have been discussed in the council’s open session, he said.

After hearing both sides of the case earlier this month, Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell issued a sealed ruling last week but neither the city nor Shapiro’s attorney were certain what the city’s next move would be.

Deputy City Attorney James Chapin said the city is still weighing its options in the case and has yet to make a decision whether to appeal McConnell’s ruling. The city has until Oct. 17 to either appeal the case or let the ruling stand.

Charles Wolfinger, Shapiro’s attorney, wasn’t certain what McConnell’s ruling was because the document was sealed and wasn’t available to him to read.

He said McConnell’s comments at the conclusion of the court hearing Oct. 5 indicated she may have found some violations by the city, but she didn’t make any tentative ruling then.

Chapin said the city attorney’s office, which monitors the council’s agenda, rejected Shapiro’s claim that the council was acting illegally in its interpretation of the Brown Act.

“The things that were discussed (in the closed sessions) were all related to real property negotiations,” Chapin said. “The City Council hasn’t done anything surreptitious, or anything wrong.”

He said the city attorney’s office may have erred a few times when it failed to list the discussion of the Qualcomm Stadium lease extension as a part of a particular closed session, but other than that, all matters involved giving direction to its negotiators.

Chapin said the reason the council went into closed session was to give its negotiators direction concerning the ballpark’s lease arrangements. If those directions had to be given in open session, the city would be in an extreme disadvantage and make it difficult to protect the taxpayers’ interests, Chapin said.

“The bottom line is that all contract provisions (negotiated out of the public purview) are approved in open session, and open to debate,” he said.

Shapiro, a longtime and vocal opponent of the ballpark, said despite a nearly 60 percent approval by city voters in 1998, the ballpark project has changed so drastically that it deserves another vote.

Work on the ballpark ceased Oct. 2 after the city and Padres could not come to an agreement on interim financing for the project.

City officials said they are unable to issue up to $299 million in bonds for the project until a federal investigation is completed. The probe centers on Councilwoman Valerie Stallings’ purchase and sale of IPO stock in a Texas company chaired by Padres owner John Moores, and her subsequent voting on ballpark issues.

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