The Long Beach City Council on Tuesday voted 7-0 to approve a plan that limits scrutiny of its publicly funded Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The move comes as the bureau’s CEO, Steve Goodling, has been the target of a lawsuit and an anonymous complaint sent to City Hall alleging he recklessly spent public money.
Those allegations went unmentioned Tuesday as City Council members unanimously praised his work.
“I’m impressed with the Visitors Bureau,” Councilmember Kristina Duggan said after a presentation where the organization said it had a record-breaking year of tourism and revenue from hotel taxes it generates.
Despite touting its success, Goodling said it was nevertheless time to restructure the bureau in a way that would limit the public’s access to its communications and details about its spending.
Because the city helped establish the Convention and Visitors Bureau in 1982, it’s subject to California’s open meetings and open records laws for public agencies. Goodling and his staff on Tuesday said that was a handicap for the organization, which must compete with other cities’ destination marketing organizations that can keep their records private as they negotiate with convention planners they’re trying to attract.
Being able to deny more public records requests is important, “because it will protect our conversations with our customers because no customer really wants to negotiate publicly when they don’t have to in other cities,” Goodling told the City Council.
To do this, Goodling proposed a new structure for the Convention and Visitors Bureau. A new nonprofit called Meet Long Beach, formed without the city’s input, would handle its sales functions and about $7 million of its publicly funded budget. The other half of the budget, about $6.9 million, would remain with the Convention and Visitors Bureau, which would continue to handle most of the organization’s marketing and communications functions. Goodling would lead both organizations.
The proposal comes as Goodling has faced intense scrutiny about his handling of public money.
An investigation by the Long Beach Post that relied on hundreds of pages of public documents and more than a dozen interviews with people who worked closely with Goodling found mounting accusations that he was misusing city funds and mistreating staff.
Documents show he spent tens of thousands of dollars on invite-only events where city officials were treated to open bars, free food and decorations like a $40,000 steel-framed cake. Goodling has defended these events as marketing opportunities for the city.
Additionally, a lawsuit from the former finance director for the private contractor hired to run the city-owned convention center alleges Goodling spent hundreds of thousands in public funds on unneeded antiques, chandeliers, stuffed animals and other fixtures for the facility. When the finance director complained that the purchases were circumventing city rules, Goodling conspired to get him fired, he alleges.
The Convention and Visitors Bureau also bought gifts for current and former city officials, including a $125 bottle of wine for Mayor Rex Richardson and mail-order steaks for former Mayor Bob Foster, according to records the Long Beach Post obtained through public records requests.
At Tuesday’s meeting, a board member of the Convention and Visitors Bureau read a letter from Foster in support of Goodling’s plan to shield portions of the bureau from public records requests.
“This is the first time since that I’ve left office that I’m commenting on an item before the council,” board member Larry Jackson said, quoting Foster. “I believe this item is of substantial importance for the future of tourism in this city.”
Jackson, along with Convention and Visitors Bureau board chairman Imran Ahmed, have said they’re looking into an anonymous letter complaining that Goodling bullied his staff and spent public money on gifts for his friends, but they have declined to comment on the status of their review, and the topic was not mentioned Tuesday.
Goodling has declined to comment on the accusations when asked by the Long Beach Post, but in court papers, he has “vehemently” denied any unethical behavior.
In voicing his support for the proposal to shield half of Goodling’s operation from public records requests, Richardson highlighted new transparency requirements that would be included in the deal. Meet Long Beach will be required to publicly post details such as its executives’ pay, its success in attracting convention clients and its social media reach.
“Tourism is incredibly important to our city,” Richardson said, before thanking Goodling and the Convention and Visitors Bureau for “continued success in driving tourism in Long Beach.”