Sunroad Project Tears at Aguirre-Sanders Partnership

Thursday, April 5, 2007 | City Attorney Mike Aguirre and Mayor Jerry Sanders used to talk nearly every day. But, for the last week, the city attorney hasn’t been returning his colleague’s calls.

Aguirre said it’s not a snub, but rather a measure of caution as he continues what’s become a controversial investigation into a department that falls under the mayor’s supervision. He said he doesn’t want to hamper his investigation into the construction of a 12-story building in Kearny Mesa by entering into an attorney-client relationship with Sanders.

A Complex Edifice

  • The Issue: For the first time, one of City Attorney Mike Aguirre’s investigations has brushed the Mayor’s Office.
  • What It Means: The two officials have disagreed on policy matters before, but their unlikely political partnership has endured.
  • The Bigger Picture: The city attorney has promised criminal charges soon in his Sunroad investigation. And with the stakes of the pension lawsuit scaled down, Aguirre may focus on probing other areas of the city.

Still, Aguirre’s newest cause, and the political fallout that has arisen in its wake, has begun to show strains on the unlikely partnership the two men have forged since Sanders’ election in late 2005. In his investigation into the Sunroad project, Aguirre has employed the same zeal that highlighted his battles against council members, labor leaders and others. However, never before has Aguirre’s signature hardball style come so close to smacking Sanders.

“This has been a crusade for Mike. Why? I don’t know,” Sanders said. “It’s starting to divert attention away from the business we need to take care of.”

For their first year together at City Hall, the two kept up the appearance of being chummy partners who are set on reforming the city of San Diego. But many have waited for the moment Aguirre’s bombast threatened the relationship between the environmentalist city attorney and the pro-development mayor.

Although Sanders and Aguirre have disagreed before, those instances have been confined largely to matters of public policy. However, the attack on Sunroad, which involves a civil lawsuit and a criminal investigation, is the first of Aguirre’s anti-corruption pursuits to touch Sanders, who has seen some of his top officials vilified by the city attorney in the episode.

Sanders’ land-use czar Jim Waring is corrupt, Aguirre contends. Similarly, the city attorney said he is “ashamed” of Police Chief Bill Lansdowne and that he suspects the mayor’s Development Services Department is involved in a conspiracy to break the city’s lobbying laws.

What’s more, Aguirre has said the mayor’s knowledge of a search warrant granted to Aguirre by a judge last week was inappropriate. That, he said, placed the mayor in a difficult position of deciding whether his Police Department should participate in ferreting out information that could be used against his own development staff.

The controversy could wind up on a grander stage if Aguirre’s claims are eventually put on display in court.

“It’s the first crusade that has publicly touched the Mayor’s Office, but it’s not the first time Mike has made life difficult for the mayor,” said Council President Scott Peters, one of the more visible Aguirre targets.

Sanders and Aguirre both said they will overcome this disagreement as they have in the past. Last spring, Aguirre issued a legal opinion blocking Sanders’ plan to borrow $674 million in pension bonds, a key facet of the mayor’s former financial recovery plan.

In August, Sanders embraced almost wholesale the remedial recommendations offered by consultants at Kroll Inc. Aguirre tried to discredit the Kroll report, claiming it offered shoddy advice that provided the mayor with too much power.

When disputes arise with Sanders, the city attorney couches his criticism to include praise that Sanders is doing the best he can even while he picks apart a mayoral decision. Aguirre was just as careful in his take on the Sunroad dispute.

“We both agree that strict law enforcement is imperative, but on this one, for some reason, there’s a hang up,” Aguirre said.

“I would say that whoever is providing information to him is doing a real disservice to the mayor because it’s not reflective of the mayor’s high character,” he added, without specifically identifying the mayoral officials he referred to.

But whereas prior disagreements where based on policy matters, the Sunroad dispute delves into allegations of corruption. And though Aguirre in the past took on a politically weak mayor in Dick Murphy and others damaged by scores of local and federal investigations, this time he’s up against a more muscular political personality in Sanders.

For his part, Sanders has vehemently defended his staff against Aguirre’s attacks, marking a break in his usual appeasement of Aguirre’s legal battles. The council, led by Peters, has tried to persuade the mayor in the past that Aguirre’s pension challenge, which has been trimmed down substantially in the court, is a waste of time and resources. But Sanders has continued his implicit support.

Aguirre acknowledged his case against Sunroad has become his primary focus, saying that he is working on the issue around the clock. Similar to his sprawling attack of past pension deals, Aguirre has lambasted anyone who he perceives as being linked to the alleged misdealing or who he thinks is obstructing his ability to challenge it.

But rather than hounding city officials whose involvement in the pension deals preceded the tenures of both Aguirre and Sanders, the city attorney’s case against Sunroad offers a different dynamic, as it implicates several areas of the mayor’s operations.

Aguirre has said Waring should’ve been more persistent in attempting to halt the construction of the top two floors of the Sunroad building, which the Federal Aviation Administration says poses a hazard to pilots during bad weather.

Last week, controversy between Aguirre and Lansdowne flared up when the police chief expressed concerns regarding a search warrant sought by Aguirre in connection with an investigation into Sunroad executive Tom Story. The city attorney accused the chief of leaking word of a warrant to search Sunroad Enterprises’ offices to a local newspaper.

Aguirre argued in court documents that he believed the mayor’s Development Services Department was conspiring with Tom Story, a former Murphy aide, to violate a city ordinance that prevents past city officials from lobbying the government within a year of leaving the city.

As the controversy begins to assume the same expansive shape that Aguirre’s pension attacks have taken, the episode has opened a rift between the mayor and city attorney, but not into the one of the all-out wars that Aguirre has engaged in with his foes in the pension fights.

Still, the skirmish has become an issue in the very carefully crafted partnership between the city’s most popular — and only citywide — office holders.

When Sanders was elected over Aguirre’s ally, Councilwoman Donna Frye, the political community watched eagerly to see how the two officials would coexist. Central to the intrigue was whether Aguirre, who took a few swings at Sanders during the final days of the campaign, would attack the mayor as he had other officials.

And while the city attorney continues his pension quests, Sanders now has a taste of what it means to be on the other side of Aguirre’s attacks.

Local observers, however, said they aren’t sure that the tension of the Sunroad probe will necessarily tear the marriage of politics apart.

“I think the public face you’ll see will still be more about agreement than disagreement,” said Andy Berg of the National Electrical Contractors Association’s local chapter. “I don’t think the mayor or city attorney will try to go after each other as popular city officials.”

Said community activist Carolyn Chase: “I don’t think it will break out into the open. I think we’ll see them play it cool.”

Even Sanders said that he doesn’t find Aguirre to be any less credible on legal issues. And both officials said they don’t expect the feud to last.

“This is really a singular issue,” Sanders said.

Voice Staff Writer Andrew Donohue contributed to this report.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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