Tuesday, July 26, 2005 | The head of the table. Councilwoman Toni Atkins was selected by her council colleagues Monday to serve the city as mayor until the resigned Mayor Dick Murphy’s successor is elected by San Diego’s voters.

Atkins was pressed into temporary service last week hours after Councilman Michael Zucchet, the city’s deputy mayor, was convicted along with Councilman Ralph Inzunza of accepting bribes from a strip club owner. Zucchet was poised to take the reins of the council that day to succeed Murphy, who officially stepped down July 15, but was immediately suspended from the council at the arrival of the jury’s guilty verdict. He and Inzunza tendered their resignations last week.

San Diegans will vote today for one of the 11 listed candidates vying to replace Murphy as mayor. If no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff between the two top vote-getters will be held Nov. 8.

Atkins, a lesbian, received several boos at the start of Monday’s meeting from a gallery of gay rights opponents who attended to speak out against the upcoming Gay Pride Festival.

Although her detractors did not speak against her nomination to the post, several council members and one community leader spoke on her behalf.

“I find her to be a person of trust and morals,” said Wayne Riggs, pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church in North Park, who said he has worked with Atkins for 14 years. “To brand people because of sexual preference to me is undemocratic and certainly un-Christian.”

Quid pro woes? City Attorney Mike Aguirre said he is investigating whether former Mayor Murphy and the leader of the city’s firefighters union unlawfully agreed to dismiss a recommendation by experts to create an independent pension board in exchange for political support.

Aguirre accused the firefighters union of providing Murphy endorsements and campaign funding during his reelection campaign last year because Murphy “gutted” a Pension Reform Committee recommendation that would have barred pension city employees and union officials from serving on the system’s embattled board.

“It’s absolutely clear that there was an effort to scuttle the mayor’s Pension Reform Committee,” Aguirre said. “We are not going to allow people to do these agreements and have them go uninvestigated.”

Murphy denied the allegation Monday and Jerry Coughlan, the attorney for City Firefighters Local 145 president Ron Saathoff, was unavailable for comment.

The Pension Reform Committee suggested that the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System board be comprised of seven independent citizens who were not union representatives, city employees or SDCERS stakeholders. The committee recommended that appointing people other than beneficiaries to the board would eliminate potential conflicts of interest that trustees could hold when making decisions on behalf of the pension system, which currently has a $1.37 billion-plus deficit and is the center of federal and local corruption probes.

Murphy wound up instead proposing a 13-member board that included six representatives from unions, city ranks and retirees. Voters approved the new structure in November. Aguirre has continuously criticized the current SDCERS panel for being – in his eyes – tied to Murphy and for refusing to cooperate with investigators who are seeking documents protected under the board’s attorney-client privilege. The board has refused to waive the privilege, which has essentially held up the city’s audits, in turn barring San Diego from selling or refinancing bonds on the municipal market.

Aguirre has persuaded some council members into going along with his plan to turn SDCERS over to a court-appointed receiver. Mismanaged entities can be brought before a judge to decide whether to transfer oversight of the entity to an individual or firm. Aguirre filed a lawsuit to that effect earlier this month and the council hired a law firm last week to answer members’ questions about the feasibility of receivership.

Aguirre provided a timeline chronicling Murphy’s decisions that were favorable to the firefighters union as well as the campaign activities the firefighters performed on Murphy’s behalf. Murphy received an endorsement from the union in his rematch against county Supervisor Ron Roberts after the firefighters backed Roberts in 2000.

Roberts told local media that he met with Saathoff six days after Murphy started tinkering with Pension Reform Committee’s recommendation. The press report accounts that Saathoff told Roberts that the firefighters were backing Murphy because he would not change the structure of the SDCERS board. Aguirre also tied Murphy’s selection of then-indicted Zucchet, a former staffer at the firefighters union, as being a political favor for the union as well.

Murphy, in a written statement he released Monday, argued that Aguirre’s insinuations were false.

“There is absolutely no truth to Mr. Aguirre’s allegation of an unlawful quid pro quo with the San Diego firefighters. The pension board restructuring that I proposed and the voters approved was a compromise that nobody liked,” he stated.

Aguirre disagreed, saying that appointments made by Murphy and City Manager Lamont Ewell to the board were to keep truth from coming out. Ewell’s appointment, risk management director Bill Lopez, has been accused by Aguirre as being one of the creators of a scheme to enhance benefits while scaling back payments in 1996 known as Manager’s Proposal 1. Lopez, who admits he was on the city’s labor negotiating team that year, denies having any part in the plan.

The city attorney said some city officials want to thwart his attempts to investigate the city’s dealings with the retirement system.

“I will not as city attorney stand by and watch the destruction of the finances of our city while we go leaderless without a mayor,” Aguirre said.

Councilman Scott Peters, who along with Councilman Jim Madaffer were labeled as “Sons of Murphy” by Aguirre, said he tries to “work with Mr. Aguirre when he can,” but that it is sometimes tough.

“He makes his own decisions,” Peters said.

Free from some fees. The City Council repealed charging for admission to the Balboa Park Botanical Building along with other fees that will set the city back nearly $275,000 in the new fiscal year.

The council, which approved the fees in budget hearings a month ago while at full strength, reneged on the $2 price of admission to the facility as well as a $7 hike on yearlong residential parking permits because the six-member panel could not attain the five votes needed to pass legislation. Residents in or near Mesa College, San Diego State University, Hillcrest, Logan Heights and Cortez Hill currently pay $14 per year for a parking pass.

Murphy, who left office July 15, and Zucchet and Inzunza were all present when the council first passed the vote. Monday’s vote was to finalize the fees so that they would be included in the city clerk’s rate book.

The final approval of new Mount Hope Cemetery fees was postponed until September, but if the council decides to continue its burial discounts for low-income families, the city will have an extra $100,000 that City Manager Lamont Ewell will have to make up elsewhere in the next few months.

– EVAN McLAUGHLIN, Voice Staff Writer

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly at evan.mclaughlin@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips.

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