City Attorney candidates debate at Town Council meeting

Continuing to serve as a forum for public safety and local government, the La Jolla Town Council hosted the two candidates running for the office of City Attorney for a brief debate during its Oct. 13 meeting at La Jolla Rec Center. Over the course of half an hour, Republican Robert Hickey and Democrat Mara Elliott covered topics such as how to hire contractors for public projects (to avoid fiascos like the Children’s Pool lifeguard tower), short-term vacation rentals, the legalization of marijuana and more. 

The role of City Attorney (salary $193,648 plus benefits) is to advise the Mayor and City Council on the law, and prosecute misdemeanors. In terms of how they would carry out that role, candidate Elliott spoke to her experience in the City Attorney’s office, and Hickey touted his “fresh eyes” perspective. 

Town Council president Ann Kerr Bache opened the forum by asking each to introduce themselves. 

Elliott began: “I am a chief deputy city attorney at the San Diego City Attorney’s office and I am the attorney that advises on the independent audit committee and environment committee. I bring to the table almost 20 years of experience advising public entities. … My emphasis (if elected) is going to be providing services to the city-at-large and ensuring the elderly and children are protected, our domestic violence response is strong, and protecting our environment and consumers. If elected, I can hit the ground running on Day One with the experience I have.”

Hickey followed: “I am the son of a Miramar fighter pilot and that is why both public service and San Diego run through my veins. I’ve been a lawyer for almost 22 years and married that same amount of time — I passed the bar and got married in the same month — 20 of those years have been in the District Attorney’s office. 

“I also work in private practice at a major international law firm, where we worked on very important matters, including with the Padres and PETCO Park. (The Park) sat rusting because of lawsuits against the City in the early 2000s, and I was hired to find a creative litigation strategy to get that ball rolling again. So I got a real glimpse in the City when they work with private entities when they do a public-private venture. My approach is not just about being tough on crime, but being smart.”

Attendee Jeff Chasan asked about public projects that are done and then redone, or delayed due to poor work standards, seeking to learn how the winning candidate would make sure it doesn’t happen in the future. 

Noting that the City Attorney is often tasked with holding “shoddy” contractors accountable after projects are complete, Elliott said it’s a common question. “The way the city is addressing those types of projects (by opting for the lowest bid) and then remedying them when things go wrong doesn’t make a lot of sense. … Under my leadership, we’ve been able to debar, which means we prevent contractors from working with the City when they leave us with the bag when it comes to fixing things at taxpayers’ expense. We’ve been very aggressive with this, so if they should not be doing work with the City of San Diego, they won’t be. But this is just the beginning.” 

Hickey added, “Everyone I talk to expresses frustration with the City, and working with the City. In the City Attorney’s office, we need to be more transparent and more service-oriented. We need to have smarter systems and better systems of accountability and ways to track our results.”

On the topic of short-term vacation rentals, on which Kerr Bache reminded attendees the Town Council held a standing-room-only forum, the candidates were asked what they would do differently from the hands-off approach of the current City Attorney. 

Elliott opened, “The Municipal Code is very clear and does not allow short-term vacation rentals (in residential neighborhoods). The City and its politicians have been very reluctant to touch the issue because there are very strong lobbyists pushing them in one direction, but it is not fair to those whose neighborhoods have been affected and those whose lives have been completely changed because this industry is not regulated. Under my leadership, we will enforce the Municipal Code. This does not mean short-term rentals wouldn’t be allowed later with fair and reasonable regulations, but this is an issue that has been brewing far too long with no action.” 

Hickey said his first course of action would be to “Put the City Council on notice and say ‘whatever regulations you’re going to have, you better give them to us,’ because my job is to enforce the law and enforce the ordinances. So give us some clarity here about what you want in terms of ordinances. The current situation is not acceptable. There is (an often cited) memo from 2007 that is the source of much controversy, and only by the 2007 memo has this been deemed legal, so I would also look into that.”

Considering Proposition 64, which will appear on the November ballot, Town Council trustee Al Ramirez asked the candidates and thoughts and experiences on legalizing marijuana. 

Elliott said she is not a Prop 64 supporter. “I have some concerns. … From both the perspective of a mother of two children and from a City perspective, we don’t want marijuana to end up in the hands of children, but there are also environmental impacts that I don’t think have been fully addressed. Everything I’ve read suggests that it will pass, and if it does, we are prepared to look at the regulations needed to go with that.” 

Hickey agreed in the assumption that Prop 64 would passed, but said the importance lies in having a City Attorney who knows how to “deal with it,” he said. “The real challenges are going to be (looking at the regulations associated with) being under the influence of marijuana. We’ve had years to study what it means to be under the influence of alcohol, but there haven’t been as many studies on being under the influence of marijuana. In Colorado, there has been an influx of homeless teenagers … and there might be a short-term change to our homeless population.”

Citing the Children’s Pool Walk project — which was designed by local landscape architect Jim Neri — Phyllis Minick asked about the recent Fair Political Practices Commission opinion that determined it constitutes a conflict-of-interest violation to have a contractor create plans and then bid on the same project. She posed why anyone would design a project knowing they would be ineligible to carry it out. 

Elliott explained the opinion, and said, “The State has interpreted that if someone does a design up front, they cannot bid on it later. But that makes things very difficult in a design-build situation, and almost every situation we’re seeing in the City Attorney’s Office now because of this very narrow reading of that law has affected business greatly and has been very frustrating for the contractors that do business with the City. It’s coming from the State, but we do have a legislative team that needs to address that and get it fixed. We can’t be the only public entity impacted by that.” 

Hickey added that he has heard the complaint more than once. “I’d be happy to bring a fresh set of eyes to the situation. Because it is an issue that goes beyond San Diego. It reminds me that San Diego is the hardest city to get a housing project — we’re a challenging place to get business done. We need to do something about that. Let’s make things faster, more definitive and more transparent, and not get waylaid by distractions when people are trying to get things done.”

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