Is it time for the city of San Diego's private skyboxes at Qualcomm Stadium and Petco Park to be leased out?
It's a political issue that's been simmering, and occasionally rising to a boil, for more than 15 years.
A dustup in the mayor's race this week stirred echoes from two County Grand Jury "watchdog" investigations into skybox tickets that go to city officials.
Jury members said the perk had gotten out of hand.
They've called for sweeping reforms -- and revoking Councilmembers' credentials.
"City officials shouldn't be playing Santa Claus with public assets, with city assets,” says James Kelly, Jr., foreman of the 1997-98 grand jury. “If they want to give to charities, they should give out of their own pockets. Or encourage other private citizens to do that."
In an interview with NBC 7, Kelly said he has no quarrel with what he called “a reasonable number of perquisites” for public servants.
“But there was some evidence that these were really being abused,” Kelly added. “They weren't following their own policy."
The city reserves 55 skybox seats at Qualcomm Stadium for the mayor, Councilmembers, and city attorney and their guests.
Those guests, under policies adopted when the stadium opened in 1967, were meant to be people who could advance business development, tourism and sports in San Diego.
But eventually friends, relatives and political backers crowded the suite -- often unaccompanied by their hosts, especially during seasons when the Chargers and Padres were struggling.
"They were provided very lavish buffets, alcoholic beverages,” Kelly recalls.
Grand jury investigations in 1998 and 2007 -- three years after Petco Park opened with 26 city skybox seats -- prompted reforms such as charging for refreshments, banning booze, and having guests sign in and list their affiliations.
These days, the officials’ tickets largely have become giveaways, going mainly to charitable groups, military and law enforcement guests.
But there's a growing school of thought – advanced early on by then-mayor Susan Golding -- that the skyboxes should be put on the market so as to avoid ethical questions about politicians dispensing favors, even to worthy and non-controversial recipients.
"It's sort of a Catch-22,” said Chargers fan Jeff Simmons, on a noon-hour outing to the team’s souvenir shop at Qualcomm Stadium “Part of it's good – and (part is) just politics. Politics is always bad."
Then there’s the argument of raising money – hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, potentially -- for a city that's been desperate for cash to properly bankroll public safety, neighborhood services and infrastructure upgrades.
Said Mike Stewart, Jr., also interviewed at the Chargers’ gear outlet at the stadium: "If there's an opportunity to get revenue from these seats, then that's what the city should do. I mean, there's a lot of private industry that has money that are willing to purchase those seats, I'm sure."
But the most recent grand jury to tackle the issue recommended keeping skybox seats for the mayor and stadium manager, although not for other officials.
Jurors led by 2006-07 foreman David Higgins emphasized that guests should be there to benefit San Diego's interests.
"I think the lesson learned -- or the lesson reminded of -- is that we should always, always, always have the taxpayers' best interest in mind,” Higgins told NBC 7, “and spend their money as if we're spending our own."
The issue was revived Wednesday when Kevin Faulconer accused his City Council colleague and rival for mayor, David Alvarez, of excessive and ethically dubious gifting of skybox tickets.
Alvarez responded by calling Faulconer “the Grinch,” noting that Faulconer has donated tickets to police officers in the past, and been given tickets to other events by various business interests.