Monday, December 12, 2005 | Well, it’s been a long year at City Hall. City Attorney Mike Aguirre has certainly shaken up city government and redefined the role of the city attorney. His actions remind me of the quote from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”: “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Despite the numerous public discussions, debates and frequently embarrassing displays about who is right on the issue of the proper role of the city attorney, the fact remains that Aguirre has redefined the city attorney position in a way not previously seen in San Diego or anywhere else in the state.
Let’s look closer at what has occurred in the Office of the City Attorney since Aguirre was elected. Within one year, he has either dismissed or driven out more than 50 staff members from his office, including dozens of very experienced attorneys. The most common phrases I hear from those who remain are, “I’m trying to get out,” “I’m looking,” or “I’m keeping my head low and out of his way.” Workers, whether they are in public or private practice, just can’t work efficiently when their attention is focused on looking for another job or avoiding their boss.
Aguirre has engaged in unethical legal practices that conflict with his role as city attorney and the role of his office. Rather than represent and advise the mayor, city council and city departments, he has constantly accused them of wrongdoing, investigated them, called them names and generally butted heads with them wherever and whenever possible.
He has also issued legal opinions contrary to the city’s already-pled litigation defenses being pursued by his own attorneys in the sewage fee case and in the Mount Soledad cross controversy, and has recently done a similar disservice to the city with his condo-conversion opinion. That’s not what I would call “representing the client.”
It’s now been a year since Aguirre took office, yet I can’t recall any completed projects or new programs initiated by him that have made San Diego a better city.
Recommendations for improvement, if ever they are made, are held in abeyance until reports or investigations are complete. I’ve lost count of the number of his investigations – nevermind his suggestions of what should be investigated like the alleged fraud that he said last year may have unfairly kept the Cal Berkeley football team out of a BCS bowl game.
Oh, and what happened to the investigations about the San Diego Food Bank, sewage fees, gasoline price gouging, the NTC contract, under-reporting of crime statistics, counting votes on election day, and the Torrey Pines golf tee times? Aguirre is looking a lot like Don Quixote fighting windmills with these incessant, never-completed investigations.
Yet, you can add me to the majority of San Diegans who actually believe that at least someone stepped forward to lead the city while there was a power vacuum at City Hall.
However, there has been little serious discussion about what the cost to the city has been, and will be, in money, morals, reputation and values when that leadership comes from bullying, threatening, name-calling and untrustworthy, unethical behavior. Do we want our elected officials to behave in a way that we wouldn’t tolerate in our own children?
On whatever side you happen to fall (assuming there are only two) about whether or not the city attorney should be setting policy for the city, you should recognize that, at some point, a train wreck is bound to happen when our elected policy makers cannot or will not ask their attorney for advice.
If they aren’t talking to their attorney – and trust me, they are not – then they either get no advice, or they seek and get advice from persons who are not accountable to the electorate.
So, under the guise or mantra of “open and transparent government,” the very people in the system who need to change the way they operate are now seeking advice from unidentified people not accountable to you and me. Why? Because their attorney constantly threatens them with investigation, prosecution or lawsuits at every turn.
It may be that the only people who will feel brave or comfortable enough to step forward in the future to serve on the city council, in city government, on boards and commissions, or in the city attorney’s office itself, are those people to whom Aguirre has granted immunity from one of his investigations.
My advice to Mike is this: Before you launch another investigation and hold another press conference, do what ethical attorneys do – confer with your client. Exhibit some leadership by concluding your reports. Make recommendations for improvement. Be respectful of those who are mentioned in your written documents. Stop constantly hinting at culpability. Use only proven facts. Stop posturing.
Recognize that the only way you will be able to effect positive change in the city is if city officials and employees trust your motives and the way you approach issues. Only then will they willingly consult you. People will never consult with you if they believe they will become a source or subject for your next day’s press release or newspaper headline. People simply do not want to find their names in the newspaper or in one of your so-called investigations.
Develop some positive ideas or programs that will improve neighborhoods, provide better access to government and cut red tape in the city bureaucracy, rather than constantly seek publicity by press releases and press conferences. Maybe, just maybe, you could go down in San Diego’s history as someone who made a positive change rather than someone who launched a thousand incomplete investigations and really “shook things up at City Hall.”
The collateral damage that will result if Aguirre continues to operate as he has over the last year will be devastating to the city in the long run unless he changes course.
While his actions now might “feel good” and be appealing to the general public, they have consequences that will indeed be painful in the years to come.
I hope I’m wrong.
Leslie E. Devaney is a partner at the law firm of Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz. She ran against Aguirre for city attorney in 2004 and lost by a 0.8 percent margin. You can e-mail her at