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Tuesday, June 07, 2005 | The proposal to transfer the San Diego city attorney’s criminal division to the District Attorney’s Office came in with a bang in April but ended Monday with barely a fizzle.
District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis started a political firestorm two months ago when she came before the City Council unannounced to propose absorbing the city attorney’s misdemeanor prosecution powers, saying such a move could save the cash-strapped city about $2 million.
The move set off City Attorney Mike Aguirre and his supporters, who accused Dumanis of conspiring with Mayor Dick Murphy to strip the city attorney of his powers in the midst of investigations into City Hall.
But the City Council decided yesterday to end further study of the issue because of looming questions surrounding the true cost savings of such a proposal and worries that community issues would be lost under the umbrella of a countywide agency. The vote was 6-to-3, with Councilmen Scott Peters, Brian Maienschein and Murphy opposing the decision to discontinue study of the issue.
“I can see a lot of places where that $2 million could go, but at the same time I don’t want to sacrifice services,” said Councilwoman Toni Atkins, one of the original supporters of studying the transfer.
Supporters of the city attorney’s community-based divisions, as well as supporters of the polarizing Aguirre himself, came to the council chambers in droves Monday to praise the work of the office.
Those supporting the city attorney’s criminal division applauded programs that combat prostitution, childhood tobacco use, drugs, code compliance and other neighborhood-based efforts.
Under the current organizational structure, the District Attorney’s Office handles felony violations of state law, whereas the City Attorney’s Office handles misdemeanor violations of state and local law.
Originally, Dumanis had proposed absorbing all of the city attorney’s misdemeanor criminal work. She recently revised the transition to cover just misdemeanor violations of state law. But throughout, she maintained that such a transfer would cut down on staff hours when defendants are charged with both felony and misdemeanor violations.
The idea of a transfer has been proposed many times throughout the years – in 1995 by then-District Attorney Paul Pfingst and in 1999 and 2004 by the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. Each time, the plan was rejected by either the city manager or the City Council.
“It has never been a good idea, and it isn’t a good idea today,” said Diane Silva Martinez, a 20-year veteran of the city attorney’s criminal division and president of the Deputy City Attorneys Association.
A report by the City Manager’s Office said more study was needed to determine potential cost savings, effect on services and how such a transfer would be enacted.
The past three city attorneys have opined that the transfer would require a vote of the people. Dumanis has maintained that the council could enact such a transfer with the vote of a simple council majority.
Many speakers Monday questioned where the city’s priorities would fall if its community units were given to the district attorney’s office.
“Misdemeanors are our highest priority while felonies must always come first with the DA,” Aguirre said.
Others, such as local law professor Marilyn Ireland, saw more nefarious motives for the transfer. She said the move was a “clear indication that something rotten is going on.”
Still, supporters of the transfer believe the city’s financial problems require further study of a transaction that could potentially save the city millions of dollars annually. They shrugged off accusations of political maneuvering.
“This is about budget, this is about priorities, this is about policy,” said Lisa Briggs, president and CEO of the taxpayers association.
Councilman Ralph Inzunza said that the current climate at City Hall – with local, state and federal investigations and a special mayoral race ongoing – doesn’t bode well for such a change. However, “this is an issue that can be looked at every year,” he said.
Later, Aguirre proposed a budget increase of $3.9 million more than the $33.2 million proposed by City Manager Lamont Ewell.
The city attorney’s budget faces the across-the-board 5-percent cuts like all city departments. However, Aguirre said that by investing more money into the city attorney’s office, the city can save substantially by focusing on cost recovery and other issues such as bond disclosure and redevelopment law that have traditionally been contracted out to outside law firms.
He estimated that the move would save the city $1.3 million next year. The council, citing the newness of the proposal, chose to revisit the issue in the coming weeks as budget deliberations wind down.
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