Nov. 24 2010 10:19 AM

You know how the rest of that saying goes, Ben Hueso

Ben Hueso
Photo by David Rolland
Ben Hueso will leave City Hall for the state Capitol in a couple of weeks, and his parting gift to CityBeat is to validate everything we’ve said about him during his four-year tenure representing the City Council’s 8th District and his two years as the council’s president.

Liam Dillon, who reports on City Hall for, broke the news last Wednesday that on Nov. 5, three days after the general election, Hueso quietly requested $11,000 in bonus pay for 10 of his employees—$2,000 for his chief of staff, Ana Molina-Rodriguez, and $1,000 apiece for nine others.

Acting on a tip, Dillon requested from City Hall, under the California Public Records Act, all documents pertaining to any additional pay for City Council staff dated between Nov. 2 and Nov. 12. Council Administration Director Lori Witzel responded that there were no documents that matched the request. Dillon then asked Hueso spokesperson Michelle Ganon, who said she didn’t know anything about requests for bonus pay. Dillon then went to Hueso, who said, “I don’t know about that yet.” Later that day, Ganon acknowledged the requests.

When Dillon finally got the documents, they came with a handwritten note, dated Nov. 5, from Witzel to the Mayor’s office: “Please contact me when the checks are ready! Thank you, Lori.” Confronted with the goods, Witzel said she didn’t think she had to cough up the records because she didn’t think the request was final. That’s obviously bunk—how much more final can you get than asking for a heads up when the checks are ready? Surely seems to us like she was trying to cover up Hueso’s request. Unfortunately, as Dillon later reported, there’s no penalty for failing to comply with the Public Records Act.

But we’re more concerned about what Hueso and Molina-Rodriguez did. The story Ganon told Dillon was that Molina-Rodriguez wanted to give the staffers, including herself, extra pay because they did a bang-up job and because Hueso had saved an unspecified amount of money in his office budget. It sounds like this was her idea, but Hueso put the request in writing, and he’s the boss, so it’s on him.

This is troubling on two levels. First, the city of San Diego is famously broke; everyone knows it. City officials are trying to figure out a way to solve an estimated $72-million budget deficit. Employee layoffs and citizen services are sure to be components of the remedy. Ganon said Dillon’s request prompted Molina- Rodriguez “to look at it a different way” and withdraw the request. Molina-Rodriguez has been working at City Hall for 15 years; she shouldn’t have to crane her neck to see what an obscene gesture this was to taxpayers and other city workers.

Second, the request came in the middle of a budget year, meaning that David Alvarez, who won the election to replace Hueso the same day Hueso won election to the state Assembly, inherits Hueso’s unspent office budget. The man Alvarez beat in the runoff election was Hueso’s brother, Felipe Hueso. Is it too much of a stretch to conclude that Hueso was trying to stick it to Alvarez for having the audacity to get in the way of keeping District 8 a Hueso family affair?

But it’s not even Alvarez’s money. It’s the public’s money, and it’s Alvarez’s responsibility to spend it wisely, in the best interests of his district’s constituents and the public at large. So, Hueso attempted to rob Alvarez of $11,000 worth of constituent services. If it’s true that he’d been frugal with his budget, he should have stopped there.

Two days before he broke the bonus news, Dillon reported that Hueso had hired three men who’d worked on either his or his brother’s campaigns—a total expenditure of roughly $13,000 for one month’s worth of what Hueso’s office said was policy work on the Mercado project in Barrio Logan and a cross-border airport terminal and archiving documents. Yes, policy work only one month before a new council member takes over the office and its priorities. It boggles the mind—or, if not the mind, whatever part of the human body that produces scruples. Had Dillon not pressed Hueso, that would have been a $24,000 drain on the District 8 budget.

Hueso strutted into office four years ago with an annoying air of entitlement and, since then, has embellished the facts to suit his agenda, repeatedly cut off public debate just when talk got interesting, insisted upon serving as council president even as he campaigned for higher office and generally acted with arrogance. With his departure, San Diego’s gain is Sacramento’s loss.

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