Thursday, October 3, 2002
S.C. Won’t Hear Challenge to Ballpark Based on Official’s Conflict
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The California Supreme Court declined yesterday to hear yet another legal challenge to the city of San Diego’s plan for a new ballpark for the San Diego Padres.
The justices unanimously declined to review a Fourth District Court of Appeal decision in favor of the city, City of San Diego v. Furgatch, D038587. Div. One held in a July 17 unpublished opinion that a conflict of interest on the part of a San Diego council member did not void approval of measures relating to the ballpark, because the council ratified those actions after the conflict became public.
The city’s plan to redevelop a portion of its downtown, with the ballpark as its central feature, has so far survived 16 separate lawsuits.
Voters approved the project 60 percent to 40 percent while basking in the euphoria of the Padres’ 1998 National League championship. Construction is now well under way, and the team hopes to play in its new home in 2004.
The Court of Appeal ruling affirmed rulings by San Diego Superior Court Judges Judith D. McConnell—since elevated to the Court of Appeal—and E. Mac Amos in three cases that were consolidated on appeal. All relate to the conduct of former Councilwoman Valerie Stallings.
Stallings resigned in January of last year after pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges related to a gift-giving scandal involving Padres owner John Moores, who was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.
Stallings admitted as part of the plea agreement that she and members of her family had accepted gifts from Moores that should have been reported to the Fair Political Practices Commission, and that she had voted on six ballpark-related issues despite having a financial interest in the outcome as a result of investment opportunities made available to her by Moores.
Two months after Stallings left office, the council took a series of votes to ratify ballpark contracts that had been previously approved, then filed a validation action under the Government Code. Such actions permit a public entity to obtain a declaratory judgment that its actions are lawful, forestalling legal challenges that might otherwise be raised later to public spending.
The use of a validation action to approve ratification of an action tainted by a previous conflict of interest was “an untested legal strategy,” City Attorney Casey Gwinn told the San Diego Union-Tribune following the Court of Appeal decision. The city said it needed the validation judgment in order to obtain financing for its $206 million share of the proposed $458 million ballpark.
Two of the appeals on which the city prevailed related to the validation action. Opponents argued that the action was barred by the applicable 60-day statute of limitations, but the appellate court held that the period ran from the date of the ratification acts, not the original votes, as contended by the defendants.
The third appeal was from a judgment in a suit brought by ballpark opponents Bruce Skane and Jerry Mailhot, who sought to block any city action arising from what they called the “Gift By Command Conspiracy.”
The conspiracy, they alleged, was an ongoing plan by Moores and Stallings to violate the conflict-of-interest provisions of the Political Reform Act and the city charter by having the councilwoman continue to vote in support of the ballpark—and against any measure that would increase the share of its costs to be paid by the Padres—in exchange for further gifts.
Justice James A. McIntyre, writing for the Court of Appeal, agreed the allegations of the complaint, if proven, would establish a pattern of conflicts of interest requiring that the contracts on which Stallings voted be voided under Government Code Sec. 1092. But the issues were rendered moot, he said, by the validation of the ratification acts.
At least two legal challenges to the ballpark remain, the Union-Tribune reported.
In one case, the trial judge rejected a claim that changes made to the ballpark’s financing structure after 1998 were so dramatic that a new public vote should be taken. That case is still on appeal.
In another suit, former San Diego Unified Port District Commissioner Harvey Furgatch has sued the district, alleging that the $21 million it has agreed to pay to acquire land for a parking lot near the ballpark is too much.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company