The San Diego City Council’s Environment Committee unanimously called Wednesday for financial and performance audits of a disbanding group that had been putting together a yearlong celebration of Balboa Park’s centennial.

The panel also asked for a confidential report from the City Attorney’s Office on legal options to recover money that has been spent, and to determine whether the city faces potential liabilities.

Balboa Park El Prado  Photo by Chris Stone
Balboa Park El Prado Photo by Chris Stone

The Balboa Park Celebration Inc. Board of Directors voted March 4 to turn over responsibility for the event to the city, leading to questions of how $2.6 million dollars was spent, and what the city got in return.

The Voice of San Diego offered a detailed breakdown Wednesday of just what went down at the organization, from its internal instability to an inability to settle on a theme or goal – and how former Mayor Bob Filner’s turmoil contributed to the problems.

BPCI went through three CEOs and a couple of program producers in three years.

“The city spent some money and there needs to be some, certainly, some explanations,” City Attorney Jan Goldsmith told the committee members Wednesday.

He said city lawyers are negotiating the termination of two deals with BPCI, a memorandum of understanding and a funding agreement.

Goldsmith and Gerry Braun, who is handing the disbanding of the organization, noted before the committee that the group is made up of community volunteers with a long history of helping San Diego who are “distraught” at their inability to present a celebration that would generate international attention, as first envisioned.

The board members realized at various times that fundraising to put on such an event was falling short, Braun said. He said it would have taken $35 million or more to achieve the “ambitious” scale desired by the planners and city officials.

Mike Hansen, Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s representative to the committee, said an announcement would likely be made soon on a scaled-down observance of the park’s 100th birthday. City Council President Todd Gloria made a similar remark at a news briefing earlier in the day.

Councilman Scott Sherman said the problems faced by BPCI appeared to come down to “a bad plan from the beginning” and poor management.

“Quite frankly, doing the armchair quarterback thing, I really think trying to appeal on the scope that we were trying to appeal for the Balboa Park centennial was a little over-reaching,” Sherman said. “I remember sitting down and thinking, you know, if it was the 200th anniversary of Central Park in New York, would I get on an airplane and fly to New York to go see it? Probably not.”

A “San Diego-specific” celebration could still be “a real nice event without enormous cost,” the councilman said.

Braun said numerous documents regarding BPCI finances and contracts have been placed online. The rest should be released within one month, he said.

Around $273,000 of city funds remained in BPCI accounts and was unlikely to be spent, according to Braun. The group also still holds some money from private donations.

He was asked to return to the committee April 23 with an update.

– City News Service