SAN DIEGO - The San Diego City Council's Environment Committee unanimously called Wednesday for financial and performance audits of a disbanded group that had been putting together a yearlong celebration of Balboa Park's centennial.
The panel also asked for a confidential report from the City Attorney's Office on legal options to recover money that was spent, and to determine whether the city faces potential liabilities.
The Balboa Park Celebration, Inc. Board of Directors voted March 4 to turn over responsibility for the event to the city, leading to questions of how $2.6 million was spent and what the city got in return.
The CEO of the organization and now the city's transition director, Gerry Braun, said the decision to do so came after acting Mayor Todd Gloria informed the group that the city was “taking over” the plans.
Braun called that a “wise and gutsy move” and said BPCI’s board members decided at that point they should disband.
BPCI went through three CEOs and a couple of program producers in three years.
"The city spent some money and there needs to be some, certainly, some explanations," City Attorney Jan Goldsmith told the committee members.
He said city lawyers are negotiating the termination of two deals with BPCI -- a memorandum of understanding and a funding agreement.
Goldsmith and Braun, who is handing the disbanding of the organization, noted that the group is made up of community volunteers with a long history of helping San Diego who are "distraught" at their inability to present a celebration that would generate international attention, as first envisioned.
Braun spoke on behalf of the volunteer panel of board members, saying, “They’re heartbroken at this outcome. They did everything that they could to succeed. They would like to make sure the people of San Diego know that they’re sorry that this turned out the way it did.”
The board members realized at various times that fundraising to put on such an event was falling short, Braun said. He said it would have taken $35 million or more to achieve the "ambitious" scale desired by the planners and city officials.
Braun was hired to handle the dissolution, which he called a “dead-end job,” but pays him $13,000 per month.
Councilwoman Marti Emerald questioned why Braun needed a pay hike of $5,000 per month.
“I wouldn’t call it a pay increase,” said Braun, who added that he’s taken on new responsibilities and duties, including handling records requests and answering media inquiries.
Braun emphasized that no taxpayer dollars are being spent on his salary.
“My contract with the board of directors is being paid for with private funds. There’s no public funds going into this whatsoever, that includes and city funds or any tourism marketing district funds.”
Goldsmith has ordered a complete audit of BPCI’s records.
“We believe very strongly that the city’s independent auditor should do a complete review, including a performance review of BPCI. What happened? We lost some money out of this and I think there should be a review as to how the money was spent, the circumstances under which it was spent,” said Goldsmith, who also said he believes there should be a review of the level of oversight of city funds paid to BPCI.
Mike Hansen, Mayor Kevin Faulconer's representative to the committee, said an announcement would likely be made soon on a scaled-down observance of the park's 100th birthday. City Council President Todd Gloria made a similar remark at a news briefing earlier Wednesday.
Councilman Scott Sherman said the problems faced by BPCI appeared to come down to "a bad plan from the beginning" and poor management.
"Quite frankly, doing the armchair quarterback thing, I really think trying to appeal on the scope that we were trying to appeal for the Balboa Park centennial was a little over-reaching," Sherman said. "I remember sitting down and thinking, you know, if it was the 200th anniversary of Central Park in New York, would I get on an airplane and fly to New York to go see it? Probably not."
A "San Diego-specific" celebration could still be "a real nice event without enormous cost," the councilman said.
Braun said numerous documents regarding BPCI finances and contracts have been placed online. The rest should be released within one month, he said.
Around $273,000 of city funds remained in BPCI accounts and was unlikely to be spent, according to Braun. The group also still holds some money from private donations.
He was asked to return to the committee April 23 with an update.