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Wednesday, April 06, 2005 | Going on the offensive. With little advanced warning to anyone but a select few, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis showed up at the San Diego City Council meeting Tuesday and stirred herself deeper into the city’s roiling political stew. The usually low-profile district attorney rolled through an unannounced 15-minute PowerPoint presentation and made the case why her office should absorb the City Attorney Office’s criminal division. Most public speakers get only three minutes to address the council during non-agenda public comment; Dumanis’ 15 minutes ignited a blaze.
A perturbed City Attorney Mike Aguirre raced over to council chambers from his neighboring office to catch the second half of Dumanis’ proposal, in which she suggested that the city attorney’s criminal arm be consolidated under the district attorney as a cost-saving measure. The budget tip, which she said would save the city $2 million a year, had been turned down a year ago by Mayor Dick Murphy and the council when offered by a private think tank. Dumanis had remained silent on it. The idea wasn’t stomached well this time around by Aguirre, who then accused Dumanis, the mayor and the chief of police of violating the state’s open meeting laws.
“This is not about protecting the people of San Diego. It is about protecting certain people that are under investigation by the City Attorney’s Office,” Aguirre said.
The idea of putting the city’s criminal division under the district attorney’s roof has been bandied about for years. But the timing of the district attorney’s move came under heavy suspicion from some corners. She went before the council asking for the major realignment less than two weeks after she began investigating criminal corruption at City Hall in connection with the troubled pension board. The firebrand city attorney Aguirre accused the district attorney of politically conspiring with the mayor and others to strip him of his enforcement rights now that he’s launched investigations into possible corruption at City Hall. He said the move “was clearly orchestrated by the mayor,” to which the mayor replied: “The city attorney’s conspiracy theory is ridiculous.”
Things got weirder when news dribbled out that Aguirre had allegedly fired Assistant City Attorney Les Girard in the middle of Dumanis’ presentation because he would not reach the legal conclusion Aguirre wanted: that the presentation was a violation of the state’s open government law, the Ralph M. Brown Act. Aguirre refused to comment on that allegation and the status of Girard’s employment. When reached on his cellular phone, Girard said, “I’m not going to say anything. I’m going to hang up now.” Girard, who normally fills in for Aguirre at City Council meetings when the city attorney isn’t in attendance, was replaced by a number of other assistant city attorneys throughout the second half of Tuesday’s City Council hearing. Aguirre said more information would be coming forward Friday regarding Girard’s status.
The action highlighted another whirlwind day in what has become an increasingly dramatic, unpredictable City Hall.
At 9:01 a.m., a media advisory trickled into reporters’ e-mail inboxes explaining that Dumanis would be making “recommendations” to the City Council and mayor. The mayor said he had been notified the day before by Dumanis of the planned speech. He allowed her 15 minutes to speak, something he said is done for public officials at times, though it technically violates the council’s public comment rules. Aguirre said he found out about the proposal in a phone call from Girard during the meeting; Lisa Briggs, the director of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, said she had tried to contact Aguirre four times recently to discuss the issue.
Dumanis said after Aguirre’s remarks that she simply came forward with a budget suggestion as the district attorney and a private citizen of the city of San Diego. Supporters of the proposal, which include the San Diego County Taxpayers Association and county Public Defender Steven Carroll, believe it would cut down on overlapping duties, employees and resources. Currently, the city attorney’s office prosecutes misdemeanors while the district attorney prosecutes felonies. “We have two different divisions doing the same thing with different procedures and different equipment,” she said.
The mayor rejected the idea in budget deliberations last year and now supports it, if it saves the city money, he said. It was also an issue in the campaign for city attorney in the fall. As it is now, the city attorney’s criminal division prosecutes misdemeanors. Its staff of more than 160 works largely on community issues they believe would be overlooked by the district attorney. The cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco both prosecute misdemeanors through their city attorneys.
Carl DeMaio, president of the private think tank The Performance Institute, has been vocal in supporting both Aguirre and transferring the misdemeanor prosecution to the district attorney. He was skeptical of the roots of Tuesday’s happenings. “We’re still open to the transfer, but given how this proposal has come forward, it lacks the credibility that is necessary for proper policy evaluation,” he said.
If it wasn’t conspiracy, the move still appears to have been poorly timed and poorly executed. At sensitive and conspiratorial times like these, everyone’s motives are questioned; scrutiny is high. Aguirre’s opponents only last month to employed one of Aguirre’s political foes, former district attorney Paul Pfingst to rule on a suit brought against the city attorney by the pension board. Now, the district attorney is asking for a vote from and attending parties with city officials she could end up investigating. Both were Aguirre’s opponents in the 2002 primary election for district attorney, though Aguirre ended up endorsing Dumanis after losing in the primary.
NTC. After the dust had settled from Dumanis’ speech, the City Council voted to direct the city manager, city attorney and outside bond council to proceed with the paper work for nearly $16 million in private bonds to finance the public park at the Naval Training Center. The bonds will be done on the private market, so the city’s lack of fiscal year 2003 and 2004 audits won’t be a concern, though it does mean slightly higher interest rates will be paid by residents of the new Liberty Station development at NTC. The item will again be up for council discussion May 17.
– By ANDREW DONOHUE, Voice Political Writer
Please contact Andrew Donohue directly at