A top tourism official accused of recklessly spending public money and retaliating against those who questioned his expenditures is asking the City Council to help him avoid complying with open records laws, potentially limiting how much taxpayers can learn about the millions of dollars the city entrusts to him.
Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Steve Goodling has made the request as he seeks to transfer some of the bureau’s duties to a new company that is set to receive an estimated $7 million in public funds to promote local tourism and help book events at the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center.
On Tuesday, Nov. 14, the City Council will consider whether to contract with this company as part of a request that would potentially shield its internal communications and records about its spending from public records laws.
Because the Long Beach City Council helped form the Visitors Bureau in 1982 to function as the city’s marketing arm, the nonprofit agency is currently required to follow state transparency laws, including the California Public Records Act and the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state’s open-meetings law, according to an opinion authored by the Long Beach City Attorney’s office.
But Goodling’s bureau believes that complying with those laws “compromises its ability to conduct confidential business that contributes to the success of the City as a tourism destination,” staff said in a report prepared for the City Council. City staff concurred that keeping private communications such as “necessary confidential negotiations, lead development, and other marketing work” would help Goodling’s organization maintain a competitive advantage.
In an attempt to achieve that, Goodling has worked to form a new nonprofit entity called Meet Long Beach, which he’s now asking the City Council to hire as its marketing organization in place of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Goodling would still lead the bureau, which would continue to provide some marketing services in addition to managing the city’s tourism improvement district, which levies taxes on large hotels Downtown and near Long Beach Airport. But many of its current duties would be outsourced to Meet Long Beach, where Goodling would also be contracted as CEO to oversee its sales program targeting meeting and convention planners.
If the City Council approves Goodling’s plan, Meet Long Beach would be authorized to receive $4.6 million, mostly from the city’s special advertising fund, and the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s board has already voted to give it another $2.3 million from the bureau’s estimated $6.7 million budget.
Under the proposed structure, city staff believes Meet Long Beach — and the nearly $7 million in public funds it’s expected to control — would be exempt from the Public Records Act and Brown Act.
If the City Council approves the arrangement, it would be doing so without a competitive bidding process, something that’s normally a requirement when inking a contract this large with a new vendor.
In the report to the City Council, city staff wrote that the open, competitive process for the marketing contract is unnecessary because Meet Long Beach was specifically established to bid for it and is staffed by local hoteliers and convention operators familiar with Long Beach.
Meet Long Beach is “uniquely qualified” for the job, according to a resolution the City Council will be asked to vote on Nov. 14. Giving anyone else the opportunity to bid for the job would be “an idle and useless act and an unnecessary expenditure of public funds.”
Goodling has moved swiftly to get this proposal in front of the City Council in the wake of a Long Beach Post article that found mounting accusations he’d recklessly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds with little oversight and mistreated staff members who questioned how he ran the organization.
Goodling, however, has been consistently lauded by city officials, with whom he’s worked hard to form tight bonds. They were frequent guests at invite-only parties the Convention and Visitors Bureau threw using public funds, which went to purchases including a $40,000 decorative steel-framed cake, a $35,847 reception for then-Mayor Robert Garcia’s Pride celebration and gifts for current and former city officials such as a $125 bottle of wine for Mayor Rex Richardson.
Goodling has defended the spending, saying it brings positive attention and exposure to the city. One of Goodling’s board members also criticized the article, noting that the Post’s parent company benefited from the Bureau’s spending when it paid tens of thousands of dollars to throw a party promoting a hotel it’s opening.
Goodling has also faced internal turmoil at the Bureau. In July, an anonymous letter sent to Long Beach City Hall accused him of spending public money on gifts for his friends and city officials while also being “a bully who intimidates and dehumanizes people” at the Convention Center and Visitors Bureau.
That behavior helped drive two top executives away from the bureau in recent months, the letter alleges. In interviews with the Post, other former employees have accused Goodling of being verbally abusive to staff and obsessed with critics to the point that he has hunted through some employees’ work emails looking for signs of disloyalty.
Additionally, Goodling is locked in an ugly legal battle with the former finance director of the private contractor hired to run the Convention Center. He accused Goodling of circumventing the city-owned facility’s purchasing controls in spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds at a Newport Beach consignment store and elsewhere.
The lawsuit alleges Goodling conspired to get the financial director fired when he wouldn’t stop raising alarms about the unauthorized purchases that included truckloads of chandeliers, antiques, stuffed animals and other furnishings that arrived at the Convention Center unannounced. The financial director, Paul Falzon, said he tried to put a stop to the purchases after he discovered many of the items being paid for were either lost or had never arrived.
In court papers, Goodling has “vehemently” denied any wrongdoing or unethical behavior. His board at the Convention and Visitors Bureau has backed him by voting to defend and indemnify him, according to minutes from an Aug. 2022 board meeting.
Because Tuesday was a holiday for city employees, Long Beach officials were not immediately available to answer questions about the staff report on Goodling’s proposal, which was released late Monday evening.