Temecula staff retains control over Rod Run, but council splits over related donation offer

Not a whisper of dissent surfaced – from merchants, vintage car buffs or Temecula’s elected leaders – over whether the city should continue to organize Old Town’s signature Rod Run event.

But a rare 3-2 council split came during that same agenda item over whether a prospective donor may deviate from a fledgling policy that allows the city to solicit and accept event-related sponsorship fees.

And that split decision might be voided if the city attorney deems that such a deviation should prompt the council to revisit its Nov. 26 policy decision.

The July 8 council discussion began breezily when Kevin Hawkins, director of community services, used the word “outstanding” to report on the outcome of the first Rod Run operated by the city.

The council’s calm discussion turned into a roiled debate after a side issue – a prospective donation from an undisclosed source – was interjected into the motion to keep the Rod Run under staff jurisdiction.

The March 7-8 event marked the first time that city officials have been in the driver’s seat at the vintage car show. But even as the planning for the March event was wrapping up, it remained uncertain as to whether the city’s sponsorship would continue into the future.

Since its loose-knit beginning more than 25 years ago, the annual car show was initially sponsored by a coalition of business and community leaders and later by a nonprofit group that was formed mostly of vintage car and truck owners and enthusiasts.

Throughout those years and in March, the city has subsidized the approximately $63,000 that it costs to provide police, fire protection and public works services to the event.

The nonprofit group of car enthusiasts fragmented after one of its leaders moved out of state. The city initially fielded proposals from four organizations, including a founder of the group that had operated the Rod Run beginning in 1999.

But a city committee shifted gears and recommended that Temecula, rather than any of the four applicants, run the event for at least one year.

In July 2013, council members voted to place the signature event into Temecula’s hands for a one-year trial period. But they also left the door open for possibly keeping the event under the city’s control indefinitely.

The trial run was a success, city staff reported during the recent council meeting. The March event registered 750 vintage vehicles from six states and as far away as Alaska. It attracted about 60,000 spectators over the two-day period and attracted 40 vendors and 12 sponsor booths.

Merchandise sales and car registration and vendor fees covered the $58,331 cost of planning and staging the event, according to a city staff report. That figure included the $10,000 that was split between the Old Town Temecula Association and the Drifters Car Club, a pair of nonprofit groups that helped the city organize and run the event.

In addition to recovering the city’s staging costs, the event reaped a $16,678 surplus that will be disturbed to area nonprofit groups that are annually selected as recipients through the city’s community services grants program.

“I was very pleased the way it was handled,” Councilman Ron Roberts said of the Rod Run during the July 8 meeting. “I think it was one of our best.”

Yet despite the event’s apparent success, Temecula staff stopped short of asking the council to bring the Rod Run under the city’s long-term control. City staff instead recommended that just the 2015 event again fall under Temecula’s jurisdiction.

With that matter resolved, the discussion veered in a thorny direction.

Councilman Chuck Washington broached the new issue by saying that a potential donor, who was not identified, wanted to target funds toward the Rod Run in a way that deviated from city policy.

That policy, which was crafted Nov. 26 following a protracted council debate, was enacted for a one-year period.

It calls for Temecula to steer half of the money raised via such corporate sponsorships to nonprofit groups that currently receive funds under the city’s community services grants.

Such corporate sponsorships may be forged in connection with the 20 to 25 community events that the city sponsors each year. About five of those functions are large-scale “signature” events such as the Rod Run, Christmas and July 4 parades, a fireworks show and a New Year’s Eve celebration.

Washington and city staff explained that the potential donor is willing to help sponsor the Rod Run only if all of its contribution goes toward event costs. The dollar amount of the potential donation was also kept confidential.

Councilman Jeff Comerchero argued against such a policy deviation. He warned that such a concession to a prospective donor would set an “awful precedent.” He said the city must treat all potential donors the same, and a deviation now would dilute the newly-minted sponsorship policy.

Washington and Councilman Mike Naggar disagreed. Naggar called Comerchero’s conclusion “a false premise.”

“There’s no proof of that,” Naggar said. “It’s pure conjecture.”

Naggar told his colleagues that the policy’s revenue sharing requirement had “killed” the corporate sponsorship concept. He said the policy’s flaws are “coming to fruition” in the case that surfaced during the council meeting.

“I think my point is proved,” Naggar said.

But Comerchero would not be swayed. He and Mayor Maryann Edwards found themselves at the losing end of the split vote that directed city staff to solicit the donation despite the apparent conflict with the sponsorship policy.

But that wasn’t the end of the disagreement over the issue. After a muted conversation on the dais, City Manager Aaron Adams noted that legal questions had cropped up regarding the motion and vote. Adams said the council’s vote might be suspect because the public had not received advance notice of a possible action along those lines.

Candice Lee, an assistant city attorney, said the “cleanest way” to deal with such an exemption would be to bring the entire corporate donation policy back to the council for discussion at a future public meeting.

Naggar rejected that assessment as he pressed for the vote to stand.

“I would disagree with that,” Naggar countered. “It’s well within our bounds to do that.”

The hearing ended with Adams saying he will ask City Attorney Peter Thorson, who was absent from the meeting, to determine whether the donation discussion and vote was proper or if it must return to the council for a separate review.

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