San Diego's seal is shown at the downtown City Administration Building, May 8, 2018. Megan Wood/inewsource
San Diego's seal is shown at the downtown City Administration Building, May 8, 2018. (Megan Wood/inewsource)

Add another San Diego ballot measure to the long list for November’s general election.

The City Council voted unanimously Monday to put an amendment before voters on Section 225 of the City Charter – a vaguely worded and long-ignored transparency law requiring anyone doing business with the city to disclose their identities.

Why this matters

San Diego voters demanded greater transparency from their government more than 25 years ago. They never got it.

An inewsource investigation from August 2016 found that this “Mandatory Disclosure of Business Interests” law, which voters overwhelmingly approved in 1992, has rarely been enforced. As a result, there is little to no information about the people behind billions of dollars in city contracts and purchases.

Councilwoman Barbara Bry, who has advocated for clarifying the law, spoke to inewsource after the vote.

“The city gives out hundreds of millions of dollars a year in contracts, and it’s very important for the city to know with whom we’re doing business to make sure we’re doing business with people who have good reputations,” Bry said.

“Often, when you do business with an LLC, you don’t know who really owns that limited liability corporation – so you don’t know who you’re doing business with.”

Bry expects the City Attorney’s Office and Office of the Independent Budget Analyst will write the ballot language within the next week.

She also confirmed that if voters approve amending the language in November, Section 225 will ultimately require the country’s most opaque corporations – Delaware LLCs – to disclose their ownership when doing business with the city.

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How we got here

After nearly entering into a $47 million real estate deal with an alleged mobster in the early 1990s, a San Diego mayor and councilman led the charge to place an initiative on the ballot that mandated all city-engaged businesses disclose the financial interests behind them.

The new law passed with more than 86 percent of the vote and took effect in July 1992.

But the law was poorly written, and three city attorneys petitioned the council to clarify it over the past quarter century. They wanted to know what a full disclosure of business interests looked like; what type of interests must be identified; and what it meant for a person to be “involved” in a transaction.

All three city attorneys failed to get the clarifications.

In 2016, inewsource requested the disclosures behind 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. Not one disclosed all of the information required under Section 225.

inewsource brought the findings to then-Council President Sherri Lightner and Councilman David Alvarez. They got the city attorney involved, but the council was advised it couldn’t just change the city charter – that would require an amendment.

That led the council to approve this past December a business transparency ordinance as a placeholder until voters could decide this year whether to clarify the language.

Surrounding cities

Since then, inewsource has requested contracts from San Diego County’s 17 other cities to determine whether they require disclosures similar to Section 225.

The majority do not.

Contracts worth millions of dollars between private companies and the cities of Del Mar, El Cajon, Encinitas, Escondido, Imperial Beach, La Mesa, Lemon Grove, National City, Oceanside, Poway, San Marcos, Santee, Solana Beach and Vista showed no such disclosures.

Some contracts listed the names of a company’s primary officers, but inewsource could find none that asked specifically for the business to list all interested parties.

City clerks for La Mesa and Encinitas told inewsource they are both “currently evaluating the need for such regulations.”

Carlsbad, Chula Vista and Coronado do have detailed disclosures in place.

inewsource reporter Nicole Tyau contributed to this report.

More in the series …

Chlapek money
New law in San Diego firms up government transparency
Dec. 5, 2017
The San Diego City Council voted unanimously Monday to fix a vaguely worded law requiring anyone doing business with the city to disclose their identities.

Chlapek main art
San Diego makes big stride toward government transparency
Nov. 1, 2017
The San Diego Rules Committee has crafted a fix for the vague transparency law called Section 225 of the San Diego City Charter. It’s now up to the full council to put into law.

Section 225
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.

Chlapek Delaware
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.

Rolls Royce
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.

Petco Park
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.

Chlapek money
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.

Section 225
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.

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.

We’ll let you know when big things happen.

Brad Racino was 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 in...