As detailed in a recent inewsource investigation, backroom deals have been a staple in San Diego for decades. Section 225 could force disclosure of hidden interests in billions of dollars of business with the city. Art by Ben Chlapek for inewsource.

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The San Diego City Attorney’s Office submitted plans last week for fixing a long-ignored law called Section 225 that requires disclosure of information about contractors.

[one_half][box type=”shadow this-matters”]After an inewsource investigation found San Diego’s transparency lacking, the City Attorney’s Office has recommended a new law to ensure all business is done in the open.[/box][/one_half]

On Oct. 12, the office shared a draft ordinance with the City Council’s Rules Committee containing “several areas where we need policy direction,” and concluded that the “City Council cannot approve legislation that changes the scope or effect of Section 225.” That would be considered an amendment and need voter approval.

The draft ordinance defines who should disclose interest in a transaction, to what extent, to whom, and for which transactions. It’s up to the council to agree.

inewsource recently published a story about the law — how it originated, how it’s been on the books for decades, and how it’s been continuously ignored. Each year, the city does billions in business with more than 1,000 companies for things like land purchases, sales, leases, franchise rights and maintenance. Yet the city rarely knows who is behind those transactions, despite Section 225 requiring the name and identity of everyone involved along with the “precise nature” of those interests.

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Read the original story from August 2016.

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As detailed in the August story, this started in 1992 when the city nearly entered into a $47 million real estate detail with an alleged mobster. To make sure that never happened again, voters overwhelmingly approved adding a section to the City Charter — San Diego’s “constitution” — called Mandatory Disclosure of Business Interests.

Over the summer, inewsource requested the disclosures behind 38 contractors that account for more than half a billion dollars in city business. Only four contractors disclosed the names of their board members or corporate officers. Not one of the 38 disclosed all of the information required under Section 225.

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Former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre told inewsource in July that the lack of enforcement may stem from the culture of the city itself. “Secrecy and concealment are the mode and method of doing business in San Diego,” Aguirre said. “It’s buzzkill if you show up and say, ‘Let’s drill down and find out who everybody is.’”

To be fair, a major problem with enforcing the law has a lot to do with the way that it was written, which left ambiguity in key spots like: What level of “identification” is required? How much “interest” does someone need to have to require disclosure? And who’s responsible for enforcing this thing?

Since the law came to be, three city attorneys have sent recommendations to the City Council for clearing up the mess, but to no avail. After inewsource spoke with Council President Sherri Lightner and Councilman David Alvarez in July about the lack of enforcement, both resolved to fix the problem, with Lightner taking the lead.

The Rules Committee is slated to discuss the issue at 9 a.m. Oct. 26.

Brad Racino is the assistant editor and senior investigative reporter at inewsource. He's a big fan of transparency, whistleblowers and government agencies forgetting to redact key information from FOIA requests. Brad received his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri...