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The San Diego City Council allotted City Attorney Mike Aguirre extra funding in the current year’s budget, but council members say they want assurance that Aguirre secured a hearty return on the cash-strapped city’s investment before agreeing to an even bigger budget that the mayor is proposing for next year.
On Monday, the council will wrap up on its department-by-department budget hearings for the next fiscal year, which begins in July, and the most controversial was apparently saved for last. The council, comprised of many officials who have regularly been at odds with the fiery city attorney, will have the final say on how much money his office is afforded.
The council members say they want to look at the city attorney’s budget from a strictly financial standpoint, but Aguirre argues that any cuts they make to his budget are “sour grapes” for the attacks he’s made on them since taking office 18 months ago.
Aguirre has been the source of constant agitation for several council members, as he has accused many of them of encouraging allegedly corrupt pension deals, covering up past indiscretions, and approving bunk financial statements that were released to Wall Street.
Meanwhile, many council members accuse Aguirre of abusing his power by filing lawsuits without the council’s consent, soliciting judgment in the court of public opinion rather than a court of law, and holding up city business by not delivering the legal support they need in a timely fashion.
“I try to compartmentalize our differences. I respect his office, I just wish he would respect the role of the City Council,” said Councilman Jim Madaffer, an Aguirre foe.
Given the city’s toil in financial uncertainty, the council says they want to make sure that Mayor Jerry Sanders’ proposal to increase the City Attorney’s Office budget by $2.1 million for the next fiscal year is necessary – especially after many departments’ budgets have sustained cuts and freezes over the past few years and Aguirre’s budget already received a $2 million hike in the current year’s budget.
Aguirre says last year’s funding boost was well spent, but council members say they have their doubts.
In budget hearing testimony and recent interviews, some council members say they want more information on the performance of a group formed to reap more money in civil settlements; the risks and benefits of Aguirre’s pension litigation, which has been his hallmark venture since taking office; and the role of the office’s public integrity unit amid the web of other ethics-monitoring agencies within the city.
Last year, the City Attorney’s Office was given an additional $750,000 in funding to start a plaintiffs group after Aguirre told the council that the new unit would capture at least $900,000 more in civil settlements for the city than it did the year before.
Settlements and judgments in the city’s favor have totaled $6.7 million, about $2.1 million more than last year, according to Ernie Anderson, who coordinates the City Attorney’s Office’s budgets on a part-time basis.
In defending lawsuits, the city paid out $1.12 million from the city’s public liability fund in the first 10 months of the fiscal year, according to the city’s Risk Management Office. Figures were not available for the previous year as of press time.
Council members have also said that they want more information about different functions of the three ethics arms of the city – the city attorney’s public integrity unit, the Ethics Commission and the new Office of Ethics and Integrity. They said they want to guard against any overlap between the agencies, especially since the city is in rough fiscal shape.
The Ethics Commission and Office of Ethics and Integrity outlined their roles to the council two weeks, but Aguirre will not present until Monday.
The Ethics Commission, which is supposed to operate outside of the purview of the city bureaucracy, provides mandatory ethics training for elected officials and their staffs, department heads and persons who sit on city boards and commissions and monitors the city’s campaign and lobbying laws. The director of the Office of Ethics and Integrity told the council the office will be more about training rank-and-file employees about conflicts of interest and discrimination, collecting tips about abuse or waste through a third-party telephone hotline, and conducting an audit to measure the organization’s ethical practices.
Aguirre said that the public integrity unit prosecutes criminal violations of the Political Reform Act, and said that function of his office is required by the City Charter. The public integrity unit budget currently pays for one staff attorney, one investigator and clerical support.
“It has the smallest budget but does the most work,” said Aguirre.
He added that the unit has led to the prosecution and conviction of a San Diego Food Bank official who sold to stores and local swap meets tons of donated food that was meant to feed the poor. Several very visible investigations into the city’s pension dealings and a probe into the city’s relationship with developer Corky McMillin are ongoing, he said, although many of those investigations were announced publicly more than a year ago.
Some council members have also said they are dissatisfied with Aguirre’s performance in pension-related cases, with those accused of having a hand in the deals voicing the loudest skepticism. They say the city stands to gain little if anything from asking a judge whether pension deals struck between the city and its pension system were legal is worth incurring millions of dollars in legal bills.
Aguirre has said that he could knock $700 million off the city’s $1.4 billion pension deficit if he can convince a court to roll back the benefits he says were created illegally between 1996 and 2002. However, Council President Scott Peters opined in a memo last month that Aguirre’s lawsuits can only retrieve $41 million for the city because it ignores a legal settlement that made permanent several millions of dollars worth of benefits. Aguirre disputes Peters’ claim.
The city attorney is also trying to stave off criticism that he was not authorized to file his primary pension lawsuit in the name of the city without the council’s authorization. Aguirre says the City Charter grants him the authority to bring legal action unilaterally, but the dispute is playing out in courts as Peters, former Mayor Dick Murphy and the former pension trustees Aguirre sued are attempting to block his lawsuit by claiming he is not speaking on behalf of his client, the city of San Diego.
They also say they are running out of patience with the pension lawsuits, as a Superior Court judge has told Aguirre to revise his primary case five times since the complaint was filed last summer.
“It really seems like we’ve spent millions of dollars on pension litigation and we’re really nowhere further along than we were a year and a half ago,” Peters said.
Other council members say that the legality of the benefits should be challenged, but say Aguirre is using too much of his resources on pressing this case.
“The focus of his tenure so far has been on the pension. What he needs to do is spend some of that bandwidth on the client,” said Madaffer, who was sued by Aguirre last month for his role the city’s controversial pension dealings.
They have complained that the City Attorney’s Office does not draft legislation or submit legal opinions on time and provides faulty advice.
“Some council members, including me, have expressed concern about work not getting done,” Peters said, noting a recent episode that a legal opinion the Rules Committee requested for last Wednesday’s meeting was not ready. He said closed session, where the council discusses legal matters, is routinely unproductive because materials are often sent from the City Attorney’s Office at the last minute.
Madaffer said that only two of the 12 requests his council office has sent for legal advice have been returned since Aguirre took office.
Aguirre said that those complaints are invalid and are being used by his political enemies to make him look reckless.
Council members often criticize Aguirre’s management style, saying too many experienced deputy attorneys are quitting or being fired and that the institutional knowledge lost by the office is showing.
Since Aguirre took office, 67 lawyers have left the office, said Ernie Anderson, a former city budget director who now handles the City Attorney’s Office’s finances on a part-time basis. Of the departed, 54 resigned, nine were fired and four retired, he reported.
“There’s no secret about the incredible turnover there,” Madaffer said. “The office is not nearly as well organized as it used to be.”
In the city’s handling of the Mercado project in Barrio Logan, five attorneys have worked on the case since Aguirre took office. Four attorneys have rotated in and out in the Building Industry Association’s legal attack on the city’s affordable housing laws in the last year.
Aguirre said the staff changes were “healthy,” and compared it to the turnover of any elected office, where a staff often follows the officeholder on the way out. Sanders, for example, called for the resignations of 300 city administrators once he took office, saying he would accept about one-third that number.
“The City Attorney’s Office was not serving the interests of the people and I gave every person the opportunity to work under the new leadership,” Aguirre said.
The council will review the budgets of the mayor, city attorney, City Council and other departments Monday at 2 p.m. in the council chambers, located on the 12th floor of 202 C St. The council must finalize a spending plan by June 30.
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