Monday, September 12, 2005 | San Diego City Councilwoman Donna Frye and Councilman Brian Maienschein aren’t exactly two peas in a pod, and you’d never mistake them for political allies except that, lately, they have been.

On some of the most controversial decisions to hit the City Council this year, the button-down Republican Maienschein and populist Democrat Frye have become a two-person voting bloc. And because the current council only has six voting members, a two-person voting bloc can be pretty powerful.

Who’d a thunk it?

Well, first of all, neither of them. Both would maintain that they’re doing their own thing. Frye has made it a point of pride to be able to say she has often voted against the majorities of a council that many say has led the city into a historical financial crisis.

Maienschein, in an interview last week, said he hasn’t changed anything – that he has always voted his conscience. But he did give us a glimpse into what he’s thinking these days: That he may not have changed, but the facts have.

During the interview, he repeated a line he first said from his chair in City Council chambers almost exactly a year ago today:

“I haven’t always gotten the greatest advice in the world on some of these issues,” Maienschein said on Sept. 13, 2004.

The issue he was talking about at that moment last year seems almost comical now.

On the docket was a proposal to hire underwriters and lawyers who would prepare the documents that the city would use to sell sewer bonds to investors on Wall Street. There was another proposal to also get the ball rolling on $200 million of pension obligation bonds.

Of course, last September just like this, the city did not have an audited financial statement for fiscal year 2003. And last year, just like this, that deficiency more or less disabled it from selling bonds.

But city staff was ever optimistic. It was a “prudent risk” to hire the lawyers then, they said, because the sewer system needed work so the city needed to issue bonds. They claimed that an investigative report from the firm Vinson & Elkins would be completed soon and that the outside auditors would read that and maybe be able to put out the 2003 financial audit soon after.

We now know that the city’s auditor, KPMG, had told city staff that it had serious misgivings about the scope of the Vinson & Elkins report and there was ample evidence that KPMG was nowhere near putting out a 2003 audit.

That didn’t stop staff, though. The City Council was being asked to move forward.

They were the only two to vote for the continuance.

But when the actual contract came up for approval a few minutes later, Maienschein voted yes. The momentum by then, however, was against the proposal and two of Frye’s other colleagues had joined her to fatally shoot down the contracts. It was one of those special issues where six – not five – votes were needed to move it forward. Maienschein ended up siding with four of his colleagues who had taken what was, of course, the absurd advice from city staff that they proceed with a bond issuance that was dead on arrival.

Last month, Maienschein struck back against what he said were several years’ worth of misleading advice. In one of the most significant council actions of the year, Maienschein joined Frye to vote against covering the legal cost of employees who were being sued by City Attorney Mike Aguirre and prosecuted by District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

Frye and Maienschein were the only no votes on the proposal, but with only six people sitting on the City Council these days, a 4-to-2 vote means a measure fails.

The former Assistant City Auditor Terri Webster, the former Human Resources Director Cathy Lexin, former Deputy City Manager Bruce Herring and others were left to defend themselves against Aguirre’s charges. They all will most specifically have to answer charges that a 2002 pension funding arrangement was created illegally.

Maienschein feels the burden of proof that it wasn’t rests on those individuals’ shoulders.

“Whether it was intentional or unintentional, the result of what they told us turned out not to be true. I, at this time, did not think it was proper to defend them,” Maienschein said.

“If at a later time it turns out they did not do anything wrong, maybe we can work something out.”

But that vote was only one of three major ones Maienschein has taken in the last several months that have attracted the attention of City Hall observers.

He also, several months earlier, voted no – again with Frye – on the salary ordinance authorizing the city to pay its workers what was agreed to in the union negotiations. Union leaders and city officials regularly highlight the sacrifices employees made in those negotiations. But Frye and Maienschein didn’t think it was enough.

“I just didn’t think it was a good deal,” Maienschein said. And he reiterated his position that the city should stop promising its employees a guaranteed pension at all and instead should move to what’s known as a defined-contribution pension plan, similar to a 401K.

Finally, just a few days ago, Maienschein stood with Frye on her proposal to oust Pension Board President Peter Preovolos from the SDCERS board of administration. Maienschein, Frye and Deputy Mayor Toni Atkins voted to throw Preovolos off the board.

City Councilman Jim Madaffer had called for Preovolos’ ouster for weeks, but changed his mind because the pension board had agreed to release documents to federal investigators – a move they had refused to do for many months.

Madaffer felt Preovolos had compromised on an important issue for the city.

Maienschein and Frye didn’t think so.

“[Preovolos] was ordered to do that. It wasn’t like there was any change in his position. The change was that a court ordered it,” Maienschein said.

Although Frye and Maienschein may not be holding hands and skipping down the street together, something has to explain their convergence on these crucial points.

And that something is obvious in this quote from Maienschein:

“On issue after issue, I feel like I have not been given a straight answer whether it’s from the City Manager’s Office, the City Attorney’s Office, the city auditor – you can go down the list,” he said.

He’s become skeptical of city staff. That’s a train of thought Frye got on a long time ago.

As part of the ongoing project here at Scott Lewis on Politics (SLOP) to determine what, exactly, the council thinks it did when it authorized City Attorney Mike Aguirre to pursue his legal wish list and use city resources to challenge the legality of pension benefits, SLOP staff has been asking every council member we can what their interpretation is.

And we did so when we got Councilman Brian Maienschein on the phone last week.

True to form, yet another council interview brought us yet another perspective of what the council supports in Aguirre’s legal action and what it doesn’t.

Maienschein stressed that the council’s support of Aguirre rested on giving him the resources to do research to show the council more information so that they could determine whether pursuing a court ruling on the legality of pension benefit enhancements enacted in 1996 and 2002 is worthwhile.

“It doesn’t mean I’ve endorsed his legal theories,” Maienschein said.

So let’s review our information on this:

Aguirre said the council has endorsed his legal action. Plain and simple: It is “one area” of his reform agenda the council has supported.

Deputy Mayor Toni Atkins is last on the record with us saying that “no action” was taken with regard to endorsing, or authorizing, or supporting, or whatever, Aguirre’s legal initiative challenging the benefit enhancements and seeking a rollback of benefits created in 1996 and 2002.

Councilwoman Donna Frye said it’s obvious what the council did, even though council members may have different motivations for doing it. The council authorized Aguirre to pursue his legal action against the SDCERS board and various individuals asking that a court roll back those benefits, she said. As a mayoral candidate, she has highlighted that effort as one of the most important in righting the city’s sinking financial ship.

Councilman Scott Peters claims Aguirre was authorized to pursue the issue “in his name only” and that authorizing Aguirre to use city funds to support the legal action in no way indicates support for his theories.

Councilman Jim Madaffer has not responded to requests for comment on this issue for three weeks now.

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