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Thursday, October 27, 2005 | Virtual Candidate Forum
Over the last year, the City Council has had to weigh several decisions before that have shaped the city’s day-to-day operations as well as the myriad fiscal and legal challenges that could hold long-term consequences for the local government.
For some council members, these regularly occurring arduous tests pale in comparison to – and are further exacerbated by – their relationship with City Attorney Mike Aguirre.
During his first year on the job, Aguirre has fulfilled the promise he wielded during last year’s campaign for city attorney: If elected to the post, he would represent the people of San Diego and not elected officials and bureaucrats.
How he has carried out that charge has for the most part agitated city administrators, the municipality’s rank-and-file and council members alike.
Observers say that the city attorney has traditionally served at the pleasure of the council. Aguirre argues that attitude is what caused the legal problems the city deals with today: That the city’s legal advisors didn’t make the tough decisions when they need it the most.
Aguirre asserts that he is head of the city’s legal department, and is allowed to file and seek settlement to litigation without council approval. At a council meeting earlier this month, legal ethics experts disagreed whether Aguirre could act independent of the council. The pro-Aguirre argument was that the City Charter was amended to include a City Attorney’s Office along the lines of Aguirre’s vision; opponents claim he must answer to the city’s top executive, which is the City Council through the city manager.
His critics maintain that he does not have the authority to propose a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission and to file lawsuits on behalf of the city – both without an OK from the council.
Aguirre has also shot back in regards to his authority. This summer, he rebuked Councilman Scott Peters, an attorney by profession, for allegedly providing the council unqualified legal advice. City Manager Lamont Ewell also was served a non-binding citation for not consulting with the City Attorney’s Office before hiring outside legal help.
If anything is clear, it is that the debate is unresolved. Some officials have hinted at bringing the dispute to court, although there are apparently not enough votes on the shorthanded council to approve seeking a judgment.
His opponents will also argue that, in addition to overstepping his bounds professionally, Aguirre’s personality is destructive for the city. The city attorney on multiple occasions has called for the resignations of council members, city administrators and retirement officials because he says they’re corrupt.
The officials won’t take his recommended path to correct the pension plan by rolling back benefits he believes are illegal because their own personal interests are at stake, he says. His opponents’ opinions range from completely denying the city attorney’s accusations to accepting that the benefit increases Aguirre says are illegal should be judged in a court of law.
The targets of Aguirre’s ire say his allegations are ungrounded; Aguirre says the evidence is detailed in the six interim reports his office released to recount the city’s pension and financial disclosure problems that have prompted the city’s numerous probes.
For his actions, Aguirre’s public approval rating is 53 percent – higher than the city manager’s, the deputy mayor’s and the razor-thin majority he won last November, a recent Datamar poll showed. San Diegans frustrated with city government appear to favor the aggressive and very public way he does business, while his detractors believe he makes the acrimony at City Hall worse.
The candidates running in the Nov. 8 council elections are vying for the vacant District 2 and 8 council seats that are, like it or not, on the same side of the dais as Aguirre. The future officials will have to decide whether to yield to the non-traditional model of the attorney-client relationship Aguirre has set during his tenure. Also, they may have to weigh whether they believe their best option to clear up the uncertainty of Aguirre’s role is to go to court to settle it.
Read the candidates’ responses here.