Saturday, June 04, 2005 | City Attorney Mike Aguirre has called on many of his City Council colleagues to resign. He’s investigated them. He’s accused them and other city officials – sometimes quite casually – of being part of a massive cover-up, participating in securities fraud and of using the pension system as a personal slush fund.
Now it could be payback time.
The latest, and perhaps most tangible, battle between the fire-bellied city attorney and his many political enemies could very well be Monday, when the City Council can cut Aguirre’s very lifeline: his budget.
District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis shoved the issue into the public spotlight in April, dropping in unannounced at a council hearing to propose absorbing the city attorney’s criminal unit into her own. She and other supporters say the realignment could save the cash-strapped city $2 million.
It is an idea that has been chucked around town for years and was rejected by the City Council as recent as last year.
“Every time this comes up it either gets killed because of politics or personalities, and I don’t want to see that happen again,” said Lisa Briggs, president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, one of the biggest historical supporters of the transfer.
This year, personality and politics are in surplus.
Aguirre’s made quick enemies in his first six months in office, both because of his voluminous investigative reports and his spontaneous accusations and remarks, such as this sharp dig at Mayor Dick Murphy – who announced his July 15 resignation in April – on Friday:
“He should resign the same way Richard Nixon did: today, tomorrow or in a few days.”
Aguirre’s odyssey became a bit more tenuous this week when the two highest-ranking attorneys in his criminal division abruptly departed, one by firing and one by resignation. Reports of firings and resignations in the new office have been frequent since he took office, but not unexpected considering the vast change in styles between the aggressive Aguirre and his predecessor Casey Gwinn.
However, the departures of Rupert Linley and Andrea Freshwater represent the loss of two attorneys Aguirre had cited as reasons why his criminal division must stay put.
Linley spoke publicly about the need to keep the criminal office in the days following Dumanis’ proposal, but has been highly critical of Aguirre since being fired this week, even accusing him of losing his objectivity – an important trait for a prosecutor.
Meanwhile, Dumanis has pushed ahead with her desire to absorb the city attorney’s criminal unit, which comprises of the following units: screening and arraignment; trial; code enforcement; drug abatement response; neighborhood prosecution; consumer and environmental protection; child abuse and domestic violence; and public integrity.
In total, supporters of the transfer believe it will save more than $2 million by cutting down on duplicitous work in cases in which a felony and a misdemeanor have been committed by the same defendant. Currently, felonies fall under the purview of the district attorney and misdemeanors fall to the city attorney.
However, Aguirre doesn’t believe the transfer would save the city any money.
“The District Attorney’s Office stands ready to assist the city in its time of great financial need in any way we can,” Dumanis wrote in a letter to city officials this week.
Such a transfer would shift 49 of the city’s 138 staff attorneys to the county level of government.
However, the council can only authorize further study of the transfer Monday.
A report from the City Manager’s Office released this week recommends that the City Council take more time to study the issue rather than take action on such a transfer Monday.
A number of unresolved issues remain, according to the report, such as the true cost savings, the prospect of decreased attention to city-specific needs and how such a transfer would even take place.
Aguirre and two previous city attorneys have said such a transfer would require a charter amendment, something that can only be approved by voters. In her letter this week, Dumanis said her staff attorney has reached the opposite conclusion: that the transfer would simply require the vote of a majority of City Council members. The county Board of Supervisors would also have to approve.
Additionally, like many departments, the attorney’s $33 million budget faces cuts this year. City Manager Lamont Ewell has proposed shaving off $1.6 million in the city attorney’s budget over last year.
But Aguirre is proposing a $36 million budget. He said that by investing more money into revenue recovery and issues customarily handled by outside attorneys – such as bond disclosure and redevelopment law – the office can save the city $10 million.
“We’re going to expand the revenues of the city attorney’s office and contract the overall cost of legal services to the city,” Aguirre said.
Although his opponents have painted him as a reckless nuisance, Aguirre has had a noticeable impact on civic discourse. His insistence that pension benefits granted between 1996 and 2002 has dominated the discussions in the mayor’s race, with each major candidate supporting the idea of some sort of judicial review of the benefits.
His five investigative reports and ubiquitous press conferences are many times brushed off with a quick joke by council members upon their release. However, they’ve provided an interesting – though opponents say slanted – insight into a City Hall accused of secrecy.
Aguirre is known equally for his intelligence and his hot-headed temperament. Allies focus on the former, opponents on the latter.
“I think that as a practical matter, the legal department of the city, whether [the City Council] agrees with me or not, there are a lot of people that work hard here for the city,” Aguirre said. “I try and make an effort to stay away when I can so not to be an irritant to [council members].”
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