Three of the four candidates for San Diego mayor gathered Tuesday morning at a forum sponsored by the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. to present their plans for creating jobs for San Diego's citizens. However, most of those citizens do not know what the candidates said.
Two members of the media who attempted to cover the "City of San Diego Mayoral Candidates Job Growth Forum" were asked to leave by representatives from the Economic Development Corp., or EDC, and another attendee was asked to stop filming one of the candidate's speeches.
At the event, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio and State Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher each spent 10 minutes presenting their plans for creating jobs and then spent another 10 minutes answering questions. Fletcher introduced his jobs plan for the first time at the event. The fourth mayoral candidate, Congressman Bob Filner, had also originally agreed to participate but had to cancel because of a congressional session, said Bill Geppert, the EDC's chief executive officer.
A ticket to the event, which was held at the University Club in downtown San Diego, cost $45, or $400 for a table of 10. When public officials speak at ticketed events, members of the media are often allowed to listen in without purchasing a seat so they can report what was said to the public. But Geppert said the EDC decided to close this event to the media because of logistics.
"We had not used that room before and thought it was not configured in a way that makes it conducive to having press," he said. "We did not want to alter the experience our investors and members had there. If we had 10 cameras there, it would have made it more difficult."
When Geppert was informed that reporters routinely cover events in the University Club's meeting room, he said the EDC was more concerned with the space TV cameras would consume and said the EDC decided they "either had to invite everyone or not."
"Going forward, we might do it differently," he said.
Lauree Sahba, the EDC's chief operating officer, said the event was "closed" and that because the EDC does not receive government funding, it is not obligated to make its events open to the press.
However, the EDC does receive government funding. Since 2008, the county of San Diego has given the EDC $28,000 in Community Enhancement Program District Awards, which are funded by Transient Occupancy Tax, or hotel tax, revenues. Among the investors the EDC lists on its website, sandiegobusiness.org, are other taxpayer-funded organizations like the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, San Diego State University, University of California, San Diego and the Port of San Diego.
Geppert said the majority of his organization's funding comes from for-profit companies and that money from public agencies is for specific tasks like research or analysis. He said the purpose of this forum was for candidates to present their jobs plans "specifically to the audience that would be most concerned about it," including leaders of local businesses and business organizations.
Because most of the EDC's funding is not from government agencies, its refusal to allow media coverage is not a violation of the Brown Act, a state law that guarantees the public’s right to attend local government meetings, said Guylyn Cummins, a media defense lawyer at Sheppard Mullin.
But Geneva Overholser, the director of the Annenberg School for Communication's School of Journalism, called it "inappropriate" to close this event to the press.
"I would hope the candidates themselves would have objected to the arrangement," she wrote in an email. "This is a race for public office, after all."
Sahba said the EDC "made a commitment to the candidates that it would be a closed event."
But none of the three candidates present asked for such a commitment.
Representatives for the campaigns of DeMaio, Dumanis and Fletcher said they agreed to participate in the forum over a month ago and were informed last week that media would not be present. DeMaio and Fletcher's campaigns said they asked to have media present, while Dumanis' campaign had no preference.
"We were told earlier this week that EDC preferred not to invite media," wrote Tom Shepard, Fletcher's campaign manager, in an email. "We told them at that time our preference was that media be invited, and it was our understanding that our request was under consideration until Nathan got to the event this morning, at which time he was told EDC had decided they were not going to admit media."
Shepard said Fletcher would release his full jobs plan later this week.
Stephen Puetz, DeMaio's campaign consultant, said if he had known earlier media would not be allowed at the event, "we would have been more forceful."
"We're always fine with press being at any event," he said. "What Carl says for one group is exactly what he says for another. Just because the press isn't there doesn't mean he'd say something he wouldn't otherwise."
Ron Nehring, a consultant for Dumanis' campaign, said they were briefed last week on the format and rules for the event.
"At the time (Geppert) briefed us it seemed to still be an open question as to whether it would be open or closed press, and it did not matter to us either way," Nehring wrote in an email.
Filner's campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Geppert said he told all the campaigns last week he did not plan to have media at the forum and asked if they had concerns.
"I didn't get anyone who voiced concerns," he said.
Kyle Haverback, the campaign manager for the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, paid for a seat at the event and attempted to film DeMaio's speech but was asked to stop by an EDC staff member.
"She walked up to me and became very adamant that I stop recording, so I stopped because it was the only way to get her to leave," Haverback said. "When she left, I started recording again."
Geppert said Haverback was asked to stop because the EDC was not allowing anyone to videotape the event and wanted to be consistent. A small video camera was set up in the corner of the room, which Geppert said was there for the candidates to use to videotape themselves for their own use.
Other attendees sent live Twitter updates on what candidates were saying, and the audience was not asked to refrain from "tweeting" or otherwise publicizing what was said at the event, according to people who were present.
Geppert said he was pleased to hear attendees were posting updates on Twitter about what candidates said.
"I don't have any problem with any of that," he said.
He said he was not concerned with keeping what candidates said inside the room.
"I'm sure they would have preferred (media coverage)," he said. "Next time we will have a different venue, something bigger, so those concerns would be addressed."
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