Tensions ran high at the San Diego City Council’s consideration of City Attorney Mike Aguirre’s budget Monday, as council members politely couched their queries to avoid confrontation, members of the audience at times shouted at each other, and Aguirre accused the council president of conspiring with his opponents to overload public testimony against him.
The meeting marked a unique circumstance: Aguirre had to answer the questions of the council, which will have the final say over his budget. The city attorney has strived to project the notion that his office is not beholden to the council but is rather independent of their dealings – ruffling a few feathers along the way.
He tried to justify his stance Monday.
“I’ve issued a series of reports that I know the council has not received well, but it is my honest, heartfelt opinion of what the facts are,” Aguirre said, referring to the slew of investigative reports he has released, many of which implicate current council members for past pension and securities issues that have raised the concerns of investigators at several levels.
“Had there been a truly independent legal department … the city would not be in the situation it is today,” he said.
Monday’s hearing was one of many department-by-department budget hearings that the council has carried out this spring, and no official changes were made to Aguirre’s budget by the City Council. Last month, Mayor Jerry Sanders proposed a budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, and council is required to review and finalize its version of that spending proposal by June 30.
Sanders’ spending plan includes a funding boost for the City Attorney’s Office, and more than 100 people attended Monday’s meeting to weigh in on the proposal.
The hearing was characteristic of its subject – the firebrand Aguirre – who has rankled city officials and employees with his accusatory tone and his handling of the city’s legal matters.
The council chambers were packed with plenty of critics, as well as supporters wearing stickers Aguirre purchased personally and especially for the occasion.
“He’s not here to validate all of your decisions when you say, ‘make it happen,’” said resident Otto Emme.
Most of the speakers supporting Aguirre spoke about their experiences of working with the City Attorney’s Office to combat prostitution, public drunkenness, defective construction and neighborhood code violations.
At times during the hearing, decorum in the council chambers unraveled as onlookers shouted to disagree with the public speakers and other audience members.
The hallmark of Aguirre’s tenure, his legal challenge to pension deals that significantly contribute to the city’s $1.4 billion pension deficit, directly jeopardizes the future retirement pay of the employees who despise him, many of whom attended the meeting.
“He is like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills with some impossible dream to roll back our benefits. Well, that’s not happening,” said Howard Guess, a legal assistant in Aguirre’s office who is represented by the city’s white-collar union, which has waged war with the city attorney since he took office. Guess said work in the office was suffering because of Aguirre’s focus on the pension litigation.
The city attorney himself said that his pension lawsuits were top priority and that more emphasis will be placed on neighborhood prosecution and recovering revenue through plaintiff litigation once the pension and financial disclosure litigation had passed.
Aguirre has taken another stance several members of the public, city workforce and council find controversial: that he is not just the city’s chief legal advisor but that he can bring litigation on behalf of the city without the council’s approval. Although Aguirre asserts that power, critics say his lawsuits will fail because he can’t prove that he was authorized by the council to file his pension litigation in the city’s name.
“You know and I know that he has no such authority,” said Daniel Coffey, a South Bay lawyer who religiously attends the multitude of pension hearings scattered throughout downtown’s courthouses. He has been one Aguirre’s most outspoken detractors.
Coffey launched into a 15-minute diatribe that accused Aguirre of being a chauvinist, incompetent and coercive of employees. He also alleged that Aguirre was trying to bankrupt the city through his pension litigation, and that experienced deputies were fleeing the City Attorney’s Office because of Aguirre’s management style. Aguirre’s office had become “cultish,” he said.
Since Aguirre took office 18 months ago, 67 attorneys have been fired, resigned or retired, according to Ernie Anderson, Aguirre’s budget coordinator. Aguirre said that the remediation was needed, just as any elected office experiences high turnover.
Coffey’s remarks garnered disapproving shouts from the crowd, to which Coffey responded, “You need to know the truth about the man.”
Moments later, Guess was called to testify after he had submitted a speaker slip that said he was in favor of the city attorney’s budget. Aguirre accused Council President Scott Peters, who chairs the meetings, of conspiring with Guess on the confusing position so that it would eat up the time of Aguirre supporters’ testimony. Peters denied the conspiracy allegation.
Despite their frequent clashes, council members and Aguirre both said they wanted to keep the hearing “professional” and “not about personalities.”
Most inquired about how the city attorney spends his money, saying they wanted more attention paid to conducting city business.
“I’m hearing at various city departments that work is slowing down and that it’s stuck in the attorney’s office,” said Councilwoman Toni Atkins.
Peters said he liked the way the county of San Diego measures its general counsel’s effectiveness, by maintaining goals for the percentage of cases that are won and of reports that are completed by deadline. Aguirre said he was open to that idea.
Councilman Ben Hueso and Peters said they wanted more information about how Aguirre spends his money than what was provided Monday.
“It was a little more of a story book than an accounting book,” Peters said after the meeting. “I just don’t have a good sense of how his resources are allocated within the city attorney’s budget.”
Aguirre said he would provide any information the council requested before the budget was finalized.