Candidates debate role of city attorney

Five candidates running in the June 3 primary for City Attorney, talked about the job, themselves and what they envision would be their role in it during a May 13 candidates’ debate at La Jolla High School. The field includes two termed-out San Diego City Councilmen, a current Superior Court judge, an acting attorney and a controversial, maverick incumbent.

That incumbent, City Attorney Michael Aguirre, arrived late for the debate, but in time to defend himself against challengers’ charges that he has mismanaged his position.

Opening statements of candidates

Judge Jan Goldsmith, a former legislator and former mayor of Poway who is on a leave of absence from the superior court, charged Aguirre with being overbearing. “Being City Attorney doesn’t mean you get to be mayor,” Goldsmith said. “This is not the City Attorney form of government.”

Amy Lepine, whose law practice involves consumer-, family- and elder-abuse, said voters ought to seriously consider her as a viable alternative to her higher-profile competitors. “People didn’t know they had a choice in this election,” she said. “That’s why I’m in this race: To give you, the voters, a choice.”

The two acting City Councilmen, Scott Peters and Brian Maienschein, touted their records of accomplishment and their eight years of experience in dealing with the city, which they believe gives them an edge over their competition in the race.

“I get things done,” said Fifth District Councilman Brian Maienschein. “I don’t talk about the length of my resume, or how long I sat in a certain position. I talk about what I’ve done.”

“We need a change in the City Attorney’s office,” said First District Councilman and Council President Scott Peters, whose First District includes La Jolla. “I’m the most qualified person to lead that change. If you believe it’s time to take a different tone in the City Attorney’s office, I’d very much appreciate your support.”

Role of City Attorney debated

Aguirre defended his record in office, casting himself as a public defender and government reformer. “Disobeying the law is no longer a policy choice, as it has been, in San Diego city government,” he said. “The most important thing the City Attorney has to be is honest.”

The five candidates all had a slightly different take on what the role of the City Attorney ought to be.

“The role of the City Attorney is to be a watchdog, not a lap dog or an attack dog,” said Lepine. “We need to have the right balance of independence in the office.”

“The main role of the City Attorney is to be an independent voice representing the city of San Diego, not just the City Council or the mayor or the city departments,” said Maienschein. “If they see wrongdoing, it’s up to the City Attorney to report that wrongdoing to the proper legal authorities, the FBI or the U.S. Attorney or District Attorney’s offices.”

“First you have to give reliable legal advice,” said Peters. “We’ve lost over 120 attorneys in the City Attorney’s office representing centuries of experience. It will take a lot to rebuild that.”

“Being City Attorney means doing independent legal work based upon the law, and only the law,” said Goldsmith. “The City Attorney’s office is the criminal prosecutor for misdemeanors in the city of San Diego. It’s a multi-dimensional job requiring multi-dimensional skills.”

A lighter moment

A moment of levity occurred midway through the debate when a cockroach was shooed off stage and eradicated. “I don’t want to hear any lawyer jokes,” quipped Goldsmith.

“That’s why they’ve been around so long,” added debate moderator Susan Farrell.

Maienschein noted the City Attorney’s position needs to be more about getting the job done, and less about who is doing it.

“Politics need to be removed from the office first and foremost,” he said. “We don’t need to know what the City Attorney’s opinion is on every single political issue in the city.”

Goldsmith talked about restoring credibility to the post. “We have to instill some professionalism,” he said. “We have to instill rules of ethics. The City Attorney’s office should be doing more to address gangs and drugs. There’s too many politically motivated lawsuits. We need to go through those and cull out those that are political.”

Peters said Aguirre’s stewardship of the City Attorney’s position has been rife with mismanagement. “This year we spent $20 million in outside legal fees hiring out cases that should have been handled within the office,” he said. “On a $35 million budget, that’s quite an overrun.”

Lepine said the City Attorney’s post is broken and needs fixing. “The office needs to be rebuilt,” she said. “Morale is not good. We need to bring back some of that institutional knowledge that has been lost because of the people who have left.”

Aguirre: Pension crisis is strangling city’s finances

Aguirre said he deserves credit for taking on the biggest dilemma confronting San Diego city government: the pension crisis. “The pension plan has drained our ability to provide our (city’s) essential services,” he said. “One of the things I’ve done as City Attorney is made it impossible to raise the pension without a vote of the people. At least, we’ve got that in place.”

Candidates talk about who inspires them

A poignant moment occurred during the debate when candidates were asked who inspired them.

Peters said he drew inspiration from his father, a retired Lutheran minister. “He taught me the value of service,” said Peters. “My father was involved in desegregating housing in suburban Detroit and he made a lot of people mad. We got death threats. My father taught me values and I wish I was more like him. I try every day.”

Lepine also was inspired by her mother, who was a single parent. “My mom put herself through college and raised three kids,” she said. “She did a good job. All of us have got advanced degrees as an educator, a doctor and a lawyer. I’m inspired by people who stand up and fight for what they believe in, civil rights, in the face of all adversity. That’s how I’ve lived and will continue to live.”

Goldsmith concurred that his family inspired him to be where he is now. “My wife and I have been married 33 years,” he said, “and it was my wife who got me here to stay and my three children. I was in the state legislature in 1998 and I could have either run for the state senate, or stayed local. I stayed local and it was the best decision I ever made, watching my children grow up, making up for lost time when I was in Sacramento.”

Aguirre said Democratic presidents and political figures from the past are role models for him. “I loved the idealism of Woodrow Wilson,” he said, “the fact that he gave his life for his country fighting for the League of Nations. I loved the leadership of JFK. I try as hard as I can to make others feel the sense of everything is possible. I loved the courage of RFK, who got me involved in campaign politics. I was deeply touched, as many people were, when he was killed.”

Maienschein said his mother, a breast cancer survivor, is the person he admires the most. The councilman, who hails from Independence, Mo. the home of Harry S. Truman, said that historical figure is someone who should be an inspiration to us all. “He was really a down-to-earth, common sort of man who really had situations thrust upon him, but with common sense and decency, he was able to resolve them. He was an underrated person in history and someone I have a great deal of admiration for for how he conducted himself as a person and as a leader.”

Closing remarks

All five candidates closed by making their case for why they should be San Diego’s next City Attorney.

“Let’s make a fresh start,” said Lepine. “We need to take the egos out of it. We need more sunshine, more transparency in government.”

“You can use the law to fix things that are relevant to all of us,” pointed out Peters. “I can bring that kind of experience to our city.”

“I helped two communities get through two major (fire) disasters in record time creating a one-stop shop for those who were suffering, and it’s now being held up as a national model by FEMA,” said Maienschein. “I can bring that type of leadership, that type of passion, to the City Attorney’s office.”

Aguirre cited his defense of La Jolla’s Community Planning Association against decertification, and his opposition to paid on-street parking, noting stances like that are why he should be returned to office. “I’ve lived through the parking and the planning issues with you, listened to you,” he said, “We (City Attorney’s office) did what we were supposed to do, which is to protect you against improper behavior by city officials when you’re in the right, and they’re in the wrong.”

“People do want change,” concluded Goldsmith. “They’re tired of the dysfunctional problems in City Hall and they want a system that works. They want independence. City Hall needs to have a policy of no politics. We do the people’s business.”