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City Attorney hears La Jolla beefs at town council meeting

Goldsmith talks Chargers, seal lions and short-term vacation rentals at La Jolla Rec Center

San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith fields questions during the La Jolla Town Council’s July 9 meeting.
San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith fields questions during the La Jolla Town Council’s July 9 meeting.
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The office of San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith may have prevailed in a lawsuit filed by business owners attempting to force the city to address the stench from sea lions at La Jolla Cove. However, during the La Jolla Town Council’s July 9 meeting, Goldsmith vowed La Jollans won’t know his personal position on the issue — at least not until he leaves office at the end of next year.

“We make our decisions based on law, not on politics or personal bias,” said Goldsmith, a former Poway mayor, superior court judge and California assemblyman who moved from New York to San Diego in 1973. “You don’t know how I feel about the sea lions, and you never will as long as I’m in office, nor about the Chargers stadium. … My personal views are irrelevant.”

Yet Goldsmith had no problem sharing his feelings about the Chargers’ lead counsel, Mark Fabiani, with whom he has negotiated and sparred with over the NFL team’s threat to bolt from San Diego, since Goldsmith took office six-and-a-half years ago.

“He’s really a problem,” Goldsmith said, noting his tepid friendship forged with Fabiani over lunches.

In regard to the problem of La Jolla Cove being full of sea lion excrement, Goldsmith defended his office’s opinion and the March 2015 ruling of Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor that the city isn’t obligated to manage the sea lions or their naturally occurring odor.

“If you have a rat infestation, if you have roaches, you don’t call the city and say you’ve got to come out here and take care of this — the law is very clear on that,” Goldsmith maintained. “No other city in the country has that obligation. Once we assume the obligation, we now own it … and that’s like jumping in a swimming pool without any water, from a legal standpoint.”

In what seemed like a scene from the film “Groundhog Day” for many at the LJTC meeting, Goldsmith suggested La Jollans organize and meet with city officials to request action.

“I’d go to one of the lawyers here, or some other lawyer, and get an opinion as to what you could do,” he said. “I’d put together a group of knowledgeable, reasonable people and try to sit down with your mayor and your council member at one time and see what it would take to get mutual cooperation and effort. Let’s develop a plan together, not demands on the city.”

However, attendees such as La Jolla Village Merchants Association Executive Director Sheila Fortune told Goldsmith with visible exasperation that community members have reached out to city officials for years, yet the sea lion smell persists.

“I have three years of e-mails from everyone,” Fortune said. “That’s why one of the affected business owners decided to (file) the lawsuit, because we were at the end of our rope. … Now what?”

“Things were tried and apparently they didn’t work. … Sometimes you have to think outside the box to deal with a problem — way outside the box,” Goldsmith said, suggesting La Jollans may need to pursue legislation at the state level — particularly since state and federal environmental regulations may still be hindering the city from taking action.

Toni Duran, a representative with the office of 78th District state Assembly speaker Toni Atkins, said the speaker has personally “experienced the smell problem,” and has staff policy experts researching what the state can do, “if anything.”

However, Goldsmith assured, “There’s always a way to do it. When our client (the city) wants to do something as a matter of policy, our office will bend over backwards to try to do it in a legal manner. If they want to do it, we’re there.”

Goldsmith said filing lawsuits as a strategy often backfires. “You mess with my city, my client, you’re messing with me and our 146 lawyers — that’s our attitude … because the city is us; we are the city. We own it, you own it, and a city needs somebody to go to bat for it,” Goldsmith said.

Bill Robbins, who swims regularly at La Jolla Cove, said estimates show about 2,000 people per day visit La Jolla Cove and Children’s Pool beach, or about 600,000 people per year, given 300 fair-weather days. He said with about eight home games per year, the San Diego Chargers draw 560,000 people annually.

“We just want some equity; we want 60 attorneys helping us,” Robbins said, noting that, like Balboa Park, La Jolla’s coastline is an international tourist destination. “If (Balboa Park) were having the problems we’re having, you wouldn’t keep saying, ‘See Sherri Lightner,’ ” Robbins argued. “Sherri Lightner knows our problem. It’s the other council people who think we’re a bunch of rich people complaining.”

Jan Goldsmith
Jan Goldsmith
Pat Sherman

Meeting with the mayor

LJTC president Steve Haskins reported that Goldsmith’s suggestion to once again appeal to city officials seems to be gaining traction, and that his July 7 meeting with the mayor, lifeguards, city officials and community leaders proved promising.

“The mayor understood exactly what the problem was when he came in the room,” Haskins said. “I think we’ve got to the right person; I think we have the right group of people there.”

Haskins said the idea of using water sprayers or sprinklers on the bluffs was explored to “create an environment that sea lions don’t like” — particularly at night to disturb them while they slumber, a key factor to shoo a colony before it permanently establishes itself. It must still be determined if permits would be required

from the local water quality control board or other agencies to deal with the runoff and potential bluff erosion.

“At this point that appears to be the most legitimate and least objectionable method of encouraging the sea lions to move out of that area,” Haskins said, adding that a report on the Cove sea lion colony by marine mammal expert Doyle Hanan is expected within the month.

Meanwhile, Haskins said lifeguards have been instructed to begin using crowding boards (or wooden shields) to nudge the sea lions off the steps at La Jolla Cove. “The lifeguards were unenthusiastic,” Haskins said of their reaction,”but they’ll do what they’re told to do and certainly what’s necessary to protect people at the beach. … Obviously, we’re not talking about hurting or harming any animals.”

Haskins said the mayor also pledged to increase spraying the bluffs above the Cove with microbial foam to twice a month. The eco-friendly solution has been used successfully for the past few years to digest bird guano, another source of the stench that has largely been eradicated.

Haskins said he would meet with the mayor and other stakeholders again in about a month to see if any progress has been made on the issue, and to possibly review Doyle Hanan’s findings.

Short-term vacation rentals

Wading into the issue of short-term vacation rentals — and the ensuing call for the city to regulate the burgeoning online industry — Goldsmith said existing law on the issue is not clear.

“Some people contend that San Diego’s local law bans them entirely. … Our advisory (team) back in 2007 under (former city attorney) Mike Aguirre, issued an opinion that they are not banned,” Goldsmith said. “That opinion was actually well done, but it is not definitive because the law is ambiguous. It is incumbent upon the city council and the mayor to clarify the law. As was suggested in 2007, they need to determine a new ordinance (clarifying) whether short-term vacation rentals will be permitted, and if so, under what conditions.”

Ultimately, because San Diego has long permitted the use of homes for short-term rentals, Goldsmith opined, “the better interpretation and conclusion was that there was not a ban. …

“A longtime interpretation (of a law) by a governing body charged with its enforcement is given great weight by the judges … (particularly when) the city is charged with enforcing its own ordinances and it basically has not shut anybody down for that whole 30-year ordinance,” Goldsmith said, adding that times have changed and an online industry has created “a steady stream of neighbors who are coming in, partying, leaving, then new neighbors are coming in and partying.

“If you’re going to allow it, put some conditions on it and legislate a solution,” he said, noting that his office would be tasked with helping draft and enforce any ordinance the mayor’s office proposes.

“Enforcement would be the key,” Goldsmith said.