(Ben Chlapek for inewsource)

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After more than a year of inewsource stories on the topic, the San Diego Rules Committee on Wednesday firmed up a vague law called Section 225 that mandates everyone doing business with the city disclose the financial interests behind the deal.

[one_half][box type=”shadow this-matters”]San Diego voters demanded greater transparency from their government more than 25 years ago. They never got it.[/box][/one_half]

At its core, Section 225 of the city charter requires that people, corporations, limited liability companies and other entities not only disclose their names when entering into deals with the city, but also the names of the people who stand to benefit from the transaction. For example, if the city sold land to Company A, it couldn’t simply list another corporation – say, Company B – as the owner and call it a day.

Instead, Section 225 mandates Company A disclose the names of the people behind Company B.

“It accomplishes my goals,” said Councilwoman Barbara Bry, who has led the push to fix the law after inewsource brought it to her attention in March. “I’m happy that we have an ordinance that will require us to collect and save the information.”

This is important because San Diego now contracts with more than 1,000 companies each year, and those contracts collectively are worth more than a billion dollars. As time has proven, taxpayers and local leaders need to know who is behind those deals.
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According to Bry and the Office of the Independent Budget Analyst, the city said it’s been collecting and saving information on all contracts that go through its Real Estate Assets and Purchasing and Contracting divisions for the last 2½ years. Except, as inewsource discovered, the information isn’t always complete.

inewsource’s first story in this investigation last year found that out of the 38 contractors that account for more than half a billion dollars in city business, only four disclosed the names of their board members or corporate officers. None disclosed all the information required under the San Diego law.

Last month, inewsource requested all disclosures collected by the Real Estate Assets Division since July 2016 (when a city spokesman told inewsource the division modified internal operations and would retain the disclosures). The city provided 31 of them – the majority containing all the information required, but a third still missing identifying information.

Park & Market Development Partners, LP, for example, is building a quarter-billion dollar development in downtown San Diego. It is a Delaware LLC, one of the most opaque corporate structures when it comes to transparency, and its financial disclosure to the city listed another Delaware LLC as the majority shareholder.

A handful of nonprofits, including Casa de las Campanas, King-Chavez Academy of Excellence and Balboa Park Carousel, also didn’t disclose their financial interests. Yet their corporate structures are available for viewing through online searches of nonprofit-related websites such as GuideStar.

Original Section 225 law vague

Part of the reason Section 225 hasn’t been enforced since voters overwhelmingly approved it in 1992 is because the language that defines it is so vague.

The entire law, which exists in the San Diego City Charter, is four paragraphs long. The meat of it says anyone doing business with the city must make a,

“Full and complete disclosure of the name and identity of any and all persons directly or indirectly involved in the application or proposed transaction and the precise nature of all interests of all persons therein.”

But the law never defined “transaction” or “directly or indirectly involved”; it never said how to establish “identity”; it didn’t elaborate on what the term “precise interest” meant.

The Rules Committee’s unanimous vote established those definitions by adding a new section to the municipal code, which is different than the city charter. Any change to the charter requires a public vote, which is set to take place in November 2018. Wednesday’s action is a temporary solution and will be automatically repealed once the charter vote happens.

inewsource asked Bry if a possible next step in transparency could involve making all the disclosures digital and searchable, possibly through San Diego’s Open Data Portal.

“I think that’s a good idea,” Bry said.

Disclosure: Barbara Bry was an inewsource donor prior to taking office.

More in the series …

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[two_third_last]San Diego contracts, business deals closer to transparency
Oct. 3, 2017
The San Diego City Council and Mayor’s Office are fixing a law meant to make business between local government and private companies more transparent.

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[two_third_last]Fix to San Diego’s long-ignored transparency law to go on November 2018 ballot
June 9, 2017
San Diego’s most-ignored law has a fix in site. In the meantime, the city is working on an ordinance to jumpstart the process.

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[two_third_last]Stop ignoring transparency law, Grand Jury warns San Diego
April 13, 2017
The San Diego County Grand Jury issued a report on the long-ignored transparency law, called Section 225, that’s been the subject of inewsource scrutiny.

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[two_third_last]Financial interests behind San Diego deals worth billions still undisclosed
March 13, 2017
Despite overwhelming voter approval in 1992, three separate city attorney recommendations and an inewsource investigation, the city of San Diego is still not following a law mandating government transparency.

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[one_third] [/one_third]

[two_third_last]City Attorney’s Office will weigh in (again) on San Diego disclosure law
Aug. 5, 2016
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith told inewsource his office will basically reiterate its predecessors. This will be the fourth time the office has weighed in on Section 225 since its inception.

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[one_third] [/one_third]

[two_third_last]Fix proposed for San Diego’s ignored transparency law
Oct. 22, 2016
After an inewsource investigation found San Diego’s transparency lacking, the City Attorney has recommended a new law to ensure all business is done in the open.

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[one_third] [/one_third]

[two_third_last]Long-ignored transparency law would reveal who’s doing billions in business with San Diego
August 2, 2016
A law that’s been on the books since 1992 can help reveal the people behind the companies doing billions of dollars in business with the city each year — if someone would only enforce the thing.[/two_third_last]

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...