Port Commissioner to City Attorney’s Office: ‘Please Don’t Take This Personally’

Port Commissioner to City Attorney’s Office: ‘Please Don’t Take This Personally’

Photo by Sam Hodgson

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith

Unified Port of San Diego commissioner Bob Nelson is not impressed with City Attorney Jan Goldsmith’s ability to hammer out big deals.

“I just think he’s incompetent as a city attorney,” he told Liam Dillon.

Unsurprisingly, that didn’t go over too well at the city attorney’s office.

Assistant City Attorney Paul Cooper shot back in the same story: “Mr. Nelson’s comments show a fundamental lack of understanding of how the process works. That said, we have not shared any strategy with Bob Nelson concerning the Filner matter, nor would we.”

In a comment, Nelson encouraged Cooper not to take it personally. Then, he turned up his critique of Goldsmith from burn to incinerate.

Nothing personal, here, Mr. Cooper. I genuinely like Mr. Goldsmith and I have worked well over the years with several attorneys in your office, even during the prior disastrous officeholder. And I can confirm that neither you nor any other party or representative of such has discussed with me any aspect of your strategy, or theirs. In contrast to my confessed ignorance, I would note that it wasn’t me that ignored (or never read?) Section 79 of the San Diego Unified Port District Act (“Chapter 67 of the State of California Statutes of 1962 Relating to Harbors and Ports”); relevant attorney general opinions regarding the powers of city councils versus mayors when one of the parties but not the other is named by the Legislature when it enacts a law; or the California Supreme Court cases that lay behind those attorney general opinions. Because I have sworn an oath to uphold the law in my capacity as a port commissioner, I have necessarily read — and obey — the governing law in question. Even to an undereducated person such as myself, there was no room for confusion. Mr. Goldsmith’s dreadfully wrong advice on the right (not!) of the mayor to veto port commissioner appointments played a major part in the rift that opened between the two branches of our city government early this year. The result was that for several months the city of San Diego for the first time in 50 years had only one member on the port board instead of three to which we are entitled, while other cities representing only 20 percent of the district population had a total of four. We are fortunate, indeed, that the character of my colleagues from other cities is such that they acted at all times in the overall interest of the Tidelands Trust, and no advantage was taken, as it might have been in prior times. Despite repeated questions about this faulty opinion, the city attorney issued multiple memos reiterating his mistake. Since state law, relevant case law, and the opinion of the state’s attorney were insufficient to persuade the city attorney’s office that appointment of port commissioners is exclusively the right and obligation of the City Council under state law, I am not sure what to think. I do not think it was done for malice or political motive. So, was this based on (A) poor research, or (B) obstinately refusing to admit that the city attorney’s office has been goofing this up for years because that office failed to recognize that an independent state agency (the port district) is not controlled by the whim of a local government’s lawyer living out Emerson’s imprecation, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines”; or (C) something else. If (C), please educate us. There is a hero in all this, by the way: state Sen. Ben Hueso. As former City Council president, the city attorney’s advice never rang true for Hueso. So, Hueso inquired of the state Legislative Counsel, who made clear what the city attorney’s office should have known all along. I have high regard for all of you in the city attorney’s office who work hard to get it right, even when your boss seems to get it wrong, so please don’t take this personally. I do not.

Nelson’s comment has been edited for clarity and style. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us here

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Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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