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Monday, Aug. 21, 2006 | A lot has been said about City Attorney Mike Aguirre recently.
A couple of points about the man are indisputable:
- He has an engaging and hyperactive sense of humor that will bulldoze you from the minute you pick up the phone or shake his hand. And as quickly as your encounter with him begins, it will end. But you will have laughed some while talking with him. There are very few people in the world capable of that.
- He is really smart. He can research and read perhaps faster than anyone in town and he can explain the heart of an issue very quickly and very persuasively.
- He has too much confidence in this quality. He believes his wit, intelligence and research skills are so reliable that he doesn’t hesitate to come to a quick conclusion on, say, whether someone is an enemy or a friend. And, immediately after making this determination, he attacks his perceived enemies ferociously. So he’s right on everything and if you disagree with him, he thinks you are actively working against him.
This can be a problem because with more information or a bit of perspective, he’ll change his mind. And this explains some of his more curious flip flops: He’ll rehire someone he’s fired or he’ll joke around with someone he’s only recently told to f- off.
He has been on the job about 600 days. I covered his campaign for city attorney two years ago. To pull off the victory, Aguirre lined up an amazing list of supporters – people who have since come to despise him as much as he despises them.
But no enemy of Aguirre is as powerful as his worst one: himself.
I can’t help but believe after watching him over the last two years that with a bit of calculation, a bit of patience and a bit of alliance-building and calm, he could have accomplished more of his goals than he has.
Instead, too often he has let his temper get the better of him. His zeal to root out the bad elements in this town has kept Aguirre from strategizing – he doesn’t plan any of his moves, he swings at every pitch. There is a lot of wisdom in the phrase “pick your battles well.”
Let’s take a recent, well-discussed issue: the number of people who Aguirre has fired or who have quit since he took over the City Attorney’s Office.
I don’t care, for instance, that dozens of deputy city attorneys have left the office. I know that some of them are good lawyers and good people, who may not have deserved Aguirre’s brutal goodbye, but that could easily be explained to me as collateral damage of a necessary house-cleaning.
Lost in the Union-Tribune’s recent piece about massive turnover in Aguirre’s office is a simple fact: The office needed to be purged. By all accounts, including the latest, the City Attorney’s Office under Casey Gwinn was a disgrace.
As we’re now understanding better, Gwinn tied the hands of his office and recklessly if not willfully allowed the city to plunge itself into a legal and financial morass that seems almost impossible to climb out of. Even Leslie Devaney, Gwinn’s top lieutenant, was forced to campaign as a “reformer” of the office when she was running against Aguirre.
Gwinn’s leadership turned into a disaster for the city. Some bemoan the loss of “institutional knowledge” from the City Attorney’s Office now that many of his former deputies have left. Let’s be clear, while their replacements will have to catch up on the background of some issues, what Gwinn’s team took away from the office wasn’t just knowledge it was also the memory of how to avoid tough decisions and weasel out of uncomfortable conundrums.
Gwinn focused on the laudable mission to help end domestic violence in the city. That’s fine and special but he pursued that goal in place of, rather than in addition to, his responsibilities to the city. He abandoned his duty to keep the city from breaking the law and his negligence will haunt the city for years to come.
That said, there is a part of the turnover since Aguirre took over that does say more about Aguirre than Gwinn: The number of people that have left whom Aguirre personally invited to come to his team.
I remember in December 2004 when Aguirre introduced attorney Rupert Linley to City Hall. Linley, Aguirre claimed at the time, would lead the efforts to find out what was wrong with City Hall and root it out.
Months later, Linley and Aguirre erupted in a feud that two smart adult men should never experience. People can disagree, part ways, even fight, but there was something immature about what happened with Linley that embodies Aguirre’s problematic temper.
Aguirre needs a balance. He needs to include someone in his inner circle who can, and will, tell him he’s wrong or that he needs to relax or reconsider the next course of action. More importantly, he needs to learn to listen to them and disagree with them thoughtfully, if at all.
He needs to learn that not everyone who criticizes him is an enemy. Some well-meaning and intelligent people simply disagree with some of his stances and conclusions.
And on the other hand, people in this city need to realize that there’s nothing inherently wrong with conflict. There is nothing at all wrong with Aguirre interrogating the consultants and city staff who in the past would have heard nothing but calm enabling words from the City Attorney’s Office. This city’s problems aren’t due to conflict, the problems erupted from a “culture of consensus.”
U-T writer Phil LaVelle put it well in a story about the Kroll report:
“Consensus can be pleasant and even constructive – but it can also dampen debate.”
Indeed. San Diego hasn’t gotten anywhere with consensus.
But Aguirre doesn’t need to fight all of the needed battles in this city himself. He can form alliances and better calculate the workings of politics and reform. His personality does not need to be at the center of everything. He could sometimes, in fact, judge the merits of the battles he’s thinking of fighting on the number and power of the people he can get to fight them for him.
It should be remembered always that Aguirre didn’t cause the problems the city faces yet he receives as much scorn these days as some of the people who did.
We’ve come alarmingly close to having to choose between two sides: Aguirre’s “you’re with me or against me” movement and an ever-dwindling group of those who would defend and apologize for the previous status quo. This leaves independent people who have a desire to reform the city in a difficult position.
But I think you can recognize Aguirre’s potential contributions to the continuing reform of City Hall at the same time you encourage him to restrain his temper a bit and express disagreement with him about certain tactics. He should accept that those reform-minded friends exist who find reform to be more important than loyalty or partisanship.