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Briggs, San Diego City Attorney Trade Jabs Over Convention Center Initiative

Attorney Cory Briggs speaks at a news conference, April 12, 2016.
Matthew Bowler
Attorney Cory Briggs speaks at a news conference, April 12, 2016.

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and the backers of the so-called Citizens' Plan to raise hotel room taxes and possibly pave a way for an expanded San Diego Convention Center traded jabs on Tuesday over whether the proposed ballot initiative is legal.

Goldsmith issued a scathing memo on Monday pointing out what he called legal flaws in the plan.

On Tuesday morning, attorney Cory Briggs, one of the Citizens' Plan authors, held a news conference to lash back at Goldsmith.


He said Goldsmith's memo contains "the radical and undemocratic idea that the city would simply refuse to put the Citizens' Plan on the ballot if we get enough signatures. That's unprecedented to my knowledge."

Goldsmith told KPBS Midday Edition that Briggs needs to respond to the legal issues he's raised, because right now the initiative puts the city at risk.

Goldsmith said it would be "the honorable thing" for Briggs to not submit the signatures he's collected for the Citizens' Plan.

"They can do what they want to do in this initiative in other ways," he said. "I'm happy to work with them on that."

He also said any lawyer or the city could file a lawsuit if the initiative is approved by voters.


In Goldsmith's memo, he described what he said is the biggest problem with the Citizens' Plan, which was originally called by Briggs and its supporters "The Citizens' Plan for the Responsible Management of Major Tourism and Entertainment Resources."

"I've never seen it in 40 years as a lawyer. We call it the 'poison pill provision,'" the city attorney said. "That means if any one part is invalid, the whole thing goes away."

If years down the road, a lawsuit finds the tax increase portion of the initiative invalid, "the city is left holding the bag," Goldsmith said.

Six pieces of the initiative may be legally questionable, he said, but one is "crystal clear" illegal because it violates a city and state law that says all tax fund revenue must first go to city's treasurer before being allocated.

"This initiative allows the hotel operators who collect tax revenue from guests to pocket the money and reimburse themselves for certain expenses. That's illegal under our charter and under state law. There really isn't any doubt, you just can't do that," he said.

Briggs declined an invitation to talk on KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday, but at his news conference he addressed Goldsmith's criticism.

He said because the Citizens' Plan is a compromise, he included the language that if one piece is found invalid "the whole thing goes away."

"When you have a compromise, everyone needs to trust one another that people are going to do what they say, and no one is going to sandbag anybody," Briggs said.

"More importantly, it protects taxpayers because if any portion of the Citizens' Plan is illegal, we simply revert back to the way things are right now," Briggs added.

Goldsmith said the coalition behind the Citizens' Plan is made up of special interests that aren't looking out for the good of the city.

At the news conference, Briggs also announced he'd reached a settlement with the San Diego Tourism Marketing District. He is representing a group called San Diegans for Open Government, which had sued the district for charging a 2 percent tax on hotel rooms without approval of voters.

Briggs wouldn't release any terms of the settlement except for one: that the Tourism Marketing District was endorsing the Citizens' Plan.

But on Tuesday afternoon, the head of the Tourism Marketing District said in a statement that no settlement has been reached.

"We have had and will continue to have productive conversations with (San Diegans for Open Government) but there has been no action taken by our board," he said.

Briggs then posted on Twitter, "The hoteliers appear to be telling you something different than they repeatedly told me and others."