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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5 comments
David Hall
David Hall

Why does VoSD think it's necessary to reprint articles and comments? Is your site so poorly designed that readers cannot find them the first time? Are you so desperate for content that you'll fill space with the same exact quotes multiple times? Or is it time for sponsors to reconsider VoSD's idea that this is a "conversation"? I partially agree with the other comment. This is lazy. It's not journalism.

David Hall
David Hall subscriber

Why does VoSD think it's necessary to reprint articles and comments? Is your site so poorly designed that readers cannot find them the first time? Are you so desperate for content that you'll fill space with the same exact quotes multiple times? Or is it time for sponsors to reconsider VoSD's idea that this is a "conversation"? I partially agree with the other comment. This is lazy. It's not journalism.

Jan Goldsmith
Jan Goldsmith

Mr. Nelson, Although you have never asked for an explanation, I thought I would pass on to you what I explained to San Diego Newsroom reporter Michael Rosen about the veto legal analysis earlier this year: "MR: What’s been going on with the Port Commission? What can you say about the opinion about the controversy that your office just issued, which reversed several years of precedent and held that the mayor cannot veto Port Commission appointments? JG: I wrote this opinion. The City Attorney’s Office’s initial opinion was in 2006, that there was a [mayoral] veto. There was not much analysis. It was just listed. And since 2006, the mayor has been given a veto right on every appointment. Our office issued an opinion earlier this year which continued with that legal opinion. I took a second look at it when the legislative counsel opinion came in. I do not agree with our January 17 opinion or the opinion since 2006. And so I reversed it. I’m very, very comfortable with the opinion I wrote. I’ve written hundreds, if not thousands, of opinions as a judge. I viewed it the same way I would view it if I were sitting as a judge on the issue. I’m very comfortable and confident of my position. But, I changed it, no question about it. MR: What kind of backlash do you expect to result? JG: I don’t know, and I really don’t care. My job and my lawyers’ job is to try to get it right, and that’s what we’ve done. This is a tough environment, and it’s been tough since the beginning of the year. It’s the kind of environment that almost invites mistakes, not only by our office but by the executive branch. It is a very difficult environment, and so my job is to try to get it right and try to focus on quality and let the chips fall where they may. It’s a solid opinion, and there’s not much I can say more than that I got it right and I exercised my authority as the city attorney and overruled the six years of opinions that were not correct." http://sandiegonewsroom.com/news/politics-government/san-diego/648-qaa-with-san-diego-city-attorney-jan-goldsmith-on-disagreements-with-mayor-filner-part-3 I also explained my reasoning in the legal opinon I drafted in April. You can find that legal opinion here: http://docs.sandiego.gov/memooflaw/ML-2013-5.pdf

Jan Goldsmith
Jan Goldsmith subscribermember

Mr. Nelson, Although you have never asked for an explanation, I thought I would pass on to you what I explained to San Diego Newsroom reporter Michael Rosen about the veto legal analysis earlier this year: "MR: What’s been going on with the Port Commission? What can you say about the opinion about the controversy that your office just issued, which reversed several years of precedent and held that the mayor cannot veto Port Commission appointments? JG: I wrote this opinion. The City Attorney’s Office’s initial opinion was in 2006, that there was a [mayoral] veto. There was not much analysis. It was just listed. And since 2006, the mayor has been given a veto right on every appointment. Our office issued an opinion earlier this year which continued with that legal opinion. I took a second look at it when the legislative counsel opinion came in. I do not agree with our January 17 opinion or the opinion since 2006. And so I reversed it. I’m very, very comfortable with the opinion I wrote. I’ve written hundreds, if not thousands, of opinions as a judge. I viewed it the same way I would view it if I were sitting as a judge on the issue. I’m very comfortable and confident of my position. But, I changed it, no question about it. MR: What kind of backlash do you expect to result? JG: I don’t know, and I really don’t care. My job and my lawyers’ job is to try to get it right, and that’s what we’ve done. This is a tough environment, and it’s been tough since the beginning of the year. It’s the kind of environment that almost invites mistakes, not only by our office but by the executive branch. It is a very difficult environment, and so my job is to try to get it right and try to focus on quality and let the chips fall where they may. It’s a solid opinion, and there’s not much I can say more than that I got it right and I exercised my authority as the city attorney and overruled the six years of opinions that were not correct." http://sandiegonewsroom.com/news/politics-government/san-diego/648-qaa-with-san-diego-city-attorney-jan-goldsmith-on-disagreements-with-mayor-filner-part-3 I also explained my reasoning in the legal opinon I drafted in April. You can find that legal opinion here: http://docs.sandiego.gov/memooflaw/ML-2013-5.pdf

Mike1185
Mike1185

Must be a slow news day to reprint an old story. I thought we covered this: Bob Nelson, long time liberal crony. Not upset with Filner over his serial sexual harassment of women, but with his inability to fast track policy Mr. Nelson agrees with. Just because it's a slow news day doesn't mean lazy journalism should be used as a supplement.