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Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2006 | Dear Mr. Aguirre:
The recent events make history somewhat relevant in my opinion. Please forgive this intrusion if it’s not news to you, but I didn’t see it mentioned in the Kroll report or elsewhere.
Under John Witt’s administration, we attorneys had a simple, clear and oft-repeated mandate, which was, and I quote: “Be ethical. Be competent. Be diligent.” And in that order of importance. It worked like a charm.
When Casey Gwinn took over in 1996, the mandate was replaced, and became, again I quote: “Be pro-active. Be early-interventionist. Be community-oriented.”
In addition, Gwinn early on (1996) announced that he had formed a “community partnership” with several prominent private business owners/leaders in San Diego and that this partnership would enable the City Attorney’s Office and its client, the city, to be more responsive to the needs of the local business community.
More important, in my opinion, was a watershed event in early 1996 after Gwinn was the de facto city attorney (running unopposed in the primary) at which over 100 of us attorneys were present and were (presumably) percipient witnesses, including Witt himself. It was an all-hands off-campus half-or-full day meeting (I believe at the Lake
Murray City conference center). Gwinn informed us that he had previously engaged the services of a customer satisfaction survey firm and had directed them to interview the mayor, councilmembers, department heads and significant others in city government with the express assignment to find out how these officials “felt” about the City Attorney’s Office.
In sum, the reported results were, to paraphrase, that city officials “universally dislike the City Attorney’s Office because they always tell us we can’t do the things we want to do.” Gwinn then announced that that would be changing under his administration and that his vision was to have the client like us via a more (again to paraphrase) “yes, you can do what you want and we will find ways to say yes more often” approach to advising the client officials. I believe he also expressed or intimated that promotions, pay, choice of assignments and other perks for lawyers would be tied to how positive the client officers felt and gave feedback to supervisors about individual attorneys who advised them. You must interview individual lawyers from the Gwinn days to understand how this new philosophy played itself out. I had my own experiences, several of which were quite unpleasant to be sure.
I recall Witt interjecting at some point after this the following suggestion on how to be a lawyer for a city. Four words, he said, are all you need: “Yes, if” and “No, unless.” Witt elaborated: he said (paraphrasing), if a client officer proposes an unlawful, unsafe or just unwise idea, the lawyer’s response is “yes, we can do that, if we repeal the Charter, half of the State and Federal Constitutions and print money in the city print shop.” But if a sincere, public-interest-oriented idea was proposed that at least had merit albeit legally questionable, the lawyer’s answer should be “no, we can’t do that, unless you’d be willing to amend your idea so that we can at least try to get half a loaf.”
That is my memory of those days and events; others still in your office from those days should be able to corroborate me.
William Newsome was a deputy city attorney for the city of San Diego. He left the office in 2004.