What started as a temporary -- and very creative -- name change at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium has exploded into a controversy, with the Mayor's office accused of ignoring a strong-worded warning from the City Attorney, and one critic claiming that the name-change deal has short-changed the cash-poor city.
For two weeks in December, "The Q" was transformed into Snapdragon Stadium.
Banners covered the Qualcomm signs with the new Snapdragon logo.
Snapdragon is a consumer product sold by Qualcomm, which used the banners to publicize Snapdragon to the stadium crowd and millions of TV viewers who watched the December 18th Chargers-Ravens game, and two college bowl games, on December 21st and 28th.
But two weeks before that temporary name-change, the City Attorney's office warned Stadium managers, and, by extension, the Mayor's office, that changing the Qualcomm name, even for just two weeks, would violate both the Naming Rights Agreement that the city has with Qualcomm, and the city's Sign Ordinance.
"Based on the clear language of both the agreement and the Signage Plan, Qualcomm does not have the right under either of these documents to implement its proposal," warned Deputy City Attorney Carrie L. Gleeson.
The five-page memo also noted that if Qualcomm wanted to rename the stadium, even on a temporary basis, the proposal must first have the city's written consent, authorized by the full City Council.
But the Mayor's office, which controls city departments, including the stadium, did not seek council approval, and did not address the issue of violations of the Sign Ordinance.
Instead, the mayor's staff went ahead with the name change, and signed a contract with Qualcomm for the deal.
That contract, released today by the mayor's office, is was signed by a Qualcomm representative on December 20th, four days after the name change began.
The contract also reveals that Qualcomm paid the City $1,000 for the name-change rights.
That's a fraction of the $300,000 to $600,000 that networks charge for a 30-second national ad in a professional football game broadcast.
Critics say making an exception for Qualcomm could set a legal precedent that will weaken San Diego's Sign Ordinance.
"In Los Angeles, every couple hundred feet there's a billboard. San Diego, not so," said attorney Pamela Wilson, an expert in billboard and signage law. "Because we have one of the strongest sign ordinances in the country."
Wilson hopes the City clarifies its intent to uphold the Sign Ordinance, so billboard companies and property owners don't take advantage of the Snapdragon exception, to erect their own signage.
"Allowing this to go unanswered would be a big mistake for the city, and I hope they don't do it," Wilson told NBC San Diego.
Another critic blasted the Mayor for ignoring the city council on this issue.
"Well, it seems very disrespectful, not only to the City Council, but also to the voters, and the public in San Diego, to not just explain himself," said Jess Durfee, chair of the county's Democratic Party.
Durfee says San Diego's "strong mayor" form of government allows the Mayor to disregard the city council with little fear of retribution or criticism, because "the council members have to literally go to the Mayor and ask for potholes to be filled in their district. And so it does put the Mayor in a position where he can basically say, 'You know, work with me or you're screwed.'"
After two days of criticism, and mounting pressure from the local media to explain why his office went ahead with the stadium name change despite the City Attorney's memo, the Mayor's staff late this afternoon released a statement.
"I decided that allowing the temporary name change to go forward was for the greater good of our community," wrote Sanders. "The city was duly compensated for its staff time, but any notion that we should have exploited the occasion to shake down the holder of the naming rights is absurd."