Chula Vista Councilman Steve Castaneda's nose knew back in 2010. "I smell a serious rat," he said.
Last year Councilwoman Pat Aguilar got a whiff of something too.
And on Wednesday the San Diego Grand Jury chimed in suggesting that something in Chula Vista really does stink.
The odor is coming from the city’s Tourism and Marketing District.
The investigative body didn’t call the entire operation rotten but it did express some doubts about the agency’s ability to explain where its revenue is being spent.
The money comes from a self-imposed tax hike on city hotels. The revenue was supposed to be spent on marketing Chula Vista to out-of-towners, bringing “heads to beds” as the Chamber of Commerce’s CEO Lisa Cohen likes to say.
The chamber pitched the idea of the Tourism and Marketing District to complement its Convention and Visitors Bureau which ultimately was to benefit everyone in Chula Vista.
But two years ago Castaneda said he believed some of the TMD money augmented the chamber’s budget. The grand jury’s report notes that while the Visitor Information Center (which falls under the auspices of the TMD) showed expenses of $167,043 from January 2008 to June 2009, it reimbursed the Chamber of Commerce $219,000. Yet there’s no explanation of why.
Nor is there an explanation of why the Visitor Information Center was paying $14,260 in car allowances or slightly more than $1,000 in phone allowances. In other words, money that is supposed to be spent marketing the city is instead being spent on covering operating costs. Only a fraction of the revenue is being spent on its original purpose.
Some of this is old news. Last year when Aguilar was considering the TMD issue in council chambers she wasn’t thrilled with what she was hearing. At best, explanations were haphazard and muddled.
Aguilar pressed harder and ultimately demanded that Cohen and the chamber provide a thorough accounting of where taxpayer money is being spent.
To their credit the chamber and city staff have been working to address those pesky accounting issues and others. But it shouldn’t have come to this.
When Castaneda and then Aguilar first voiced concerns about the chamber’s handling of the TMD, some people dismissed them as having an axe to grind with the chamber. But now the grand jury has come along and expressed the same concerns. Vindication?
They probably wouldn’t say as much. They’d probably suggest that a city of this size and its accompanying chamber should have had its act together from day one. Chula Vista deserves as much.