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Grand Jury: San Diego Council Needs Audit On Failed Balboa Park Committee

Pictured is the fountain in the center of the Plaza de Panama at Balboa Park, Jan. 15, 2015.
Milan Kovacevic
Pictured is the fountain in the center of the Plaza de Panama at Balboa Park, Jan. 15, 2015.

A report from San Diego's city auditor on a volunteer committee that tried to put together a yearlong celebration of Balboa Park's centennial hasn't been brought before the full City Council — but needs to be, the county grand jury said Wednesday.

In a report on lessons learned on the failed attempt to orchestrate a series of major events for the 100th anniversary of the Panama-California Exposition, the grand jury recommended that the report receive a full airing before the City Council. The council members should then discuss how not to repeat the mistakes that were made, the grand jury said.

The auditor's findings went before the Audit Committee, which accepted the document last October but didn't forward it to the full council. Reports from the auditor are frequently heard by both the committee and the full council.

A statement from council President Sherri Lightner's office said the issue was also heard by the Environment Committee. Between the two, there was sufficient public comment and media coverage, and neither committee recommended it to be forwarded to the full council since it was considered to be fully vetted, the statement said. Her office also said Lightner agreed with the committee members.

The grand jury said the city should revamp the way future civic projects are carried out under memorandums of understanding or contracts with nonprofit corporations.

Oversight of celebration planning, which started four years ago, was "virtually absent" until it was too late, the grand jury opined. The result is a "diminished" acknowledgement of the 1915 event that first brought international attention to San Diego, according to the panel.

The city formed Balboa Park Celebration Inc., a nonprofit run by volunteers to set up a yearlong series of celebratory events. However, the group failed to secure sponsors and disbanded.

The city and Balboa Park Conservancy took over planning and have staged only one major event outside the annual December Nights festival. The "Garden Party of the Century," held May 9, ended up being a nice event but was nowhere near the scale initially envisioned.

The biggest attractions have been put on by the Balboa Park museums and other cultural institutions.

The city has made some physical improvements to the park, such as better lighting and wireless Internet coverage, and installing tables and chairs in the Plaza de Panama to make it more of a public gathering spot.

The grand jury report says BPCI's governing documents were "ambiguous," and that oversight by city officials was minimal. BPCI's efforts were also undone by political shakeups in the mayor's office, which changed the scope to a more national and international event, the report says.

The grand jury issued six recommendations in hopes of preventing similar occurrences in the future. Among the others:

• an MOU or contract should define all objectives of the project and the means to achieve them

• an MOU or contract should contain an executable project plan, detailed schedules and funding agreements

• a single city department should be designated to oversee contract performance

• reporting responsibilities to the City Council or a council committee should be enforced

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