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Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2006 | City Attorney Mike Aguirre railed against San Diego’s past mayors and the region’s largest newspaper in a speech Monday that was more a lecture on the government’s scarred past than the yearly report he was slated to deliver.
The city attorney also used the occasion to announce his intention to mend fences with members of the City Council with whom he has often feuded during his two-year tenure.
Billed as a review of his office’s accomplishments for 2006, Aguirre’s address was primarily a denunciation of the city’s past dealings with – and The San Diego Union-Tribune‘s coverage of – the government’s pension system, bookkeeping practices and professional sports subsidies. In the text of the 13-page speech, he didn’t elaborate on any event that took place in 2006 until page nine.
“I like to warm up a bit,” Aguirre said in an interview after his speech. “But what we’re dealing with in 2006 is because of mistakes that were made throughout the history of our city.”
The maverick Aguirre has seldom shied away from chances to blame former and current city leaders alike for their decisions over city matters, often claiming that their actions or creations were illegal. On Monday, he continued his admonishment of former mayors Susan Golding and Dick Murphy, but struck a friendlier tone with four council members that he has consistently dumped on since he assumed office in 2004.
Aguirre provided the approximately 50 audience members in attendance – many of whom are employees of his office – with his interpretation of events over the last decade that have led to the city’s pressed financial condition, which includes a $1.4 billion pension debt and an expected $87 million funding gap for next year’s day-to-day budget.
He scorned Golding for helping approve the Charger ticket guarantee, a clause that forced the city to purchase all of the team’s unsold tickets, and accused her of underfunding the pension plan in order to pay for the costs of hosting the 1996 Republican National Convention.
Murphy, according to Aguirre, bowed to a similarly concocted pension plan, demands for a downtown ballpark for the Padres, the pressures to withhold the city’s true financial fitness from Wall Street, and the demands of auditors to hire high-priced consultants that Aguirre claims were incompetent and dishonest.
The Union-Tribune prodded these decisions every step of the way, Aguirre claimed.
Aguirre pointed out several examples where the newspaper – especially its editorials, which have caught Aguirre in their acerbic crosshairs recently after endorsing his candidacy in 2004 – opined in favor of polices that he claims have hurt the city.
He presented editorials cheerleading each of the former mayors and hailing the city-subsidized renovations at Qualcomm Stadium and the construction of Petco Park, even when the team’s wishes changed in both situations. Aguirre criticized the editorial page for ignoring a 1996 news story detailing the first pension deal that the city attorney is now challenging in court.
In addition, Aguirre claimed the paper’s news department never ran a study it commissioned on the city’s agreement with the Chargers because the report concluded that the deal gave the team an “undeserved” advantage.
“It’s important having people understand their manipulation of information. It is so repetitive that it couldn’t be accidental,” he said.
Aguirre’s jabs at the Union-Tribune on Monday continue a bitter feud between the newspaper and the city attorney, who has launched his own news blog on his office’s website because of his dissatisfaction with the paper’s coverage.
He jokingly compared the blog to propaganda, “like the Eastern European countries used to do.”
The creation of the blog was one the accomplishments from 2006 that Aguirre proclaimed at the event. He also boasted about:
The city’s settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission in November, when the city avoided a fine but was ordered to hire a consultant at its own expense to oversee the city’s financial disclosure practices.
An appeals court’s decision to overturn a verdict that could have forced the city to owe developer Roque de la Fuente more than $150 million.
A consumer advocate’s settlement with the city to refund sewer ratepayers for the city’s past practice of structuring bills so that residents subsidized large industrial users.
The conclusion of the opening phase of the city’s major pension litigation, which seeks to set aside an estimated $900 million worth of benefits that contribute to the city’s pension deficit. A ruling on the first segment will likely be made by Thursday.
The recovery of more than $14.4 million for the city from consumer protection cases and in litigation brought against to the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System’s former consultants.
Critics note that Aguirre didn’t refer to some of the blunders and losses his office experienced in 2006. Aguirre lost two portions of the pension case when a judge ruled that the city attorney could not serve as the chief legal adviser for the retirement system in the ongoing litigation and that the retirement system could continue paying benefits at its current levels.
In another instance, Aguirre’s reports on the city’s past pension dealings forced the city attorney into an awkward position this spring when a former employee sued on same arguments posited by Aguirre. The city attorney’s failure to choose between admitting to his reports’ claims or defending the city in a $173 million lawsuit angered a judge, who said the handling of the case verged on carelessness. The city has since agreed to settle.
Aguirre’s detractors have also argued that his management style has driven veteran lawyers away from his office and that he does not provide the timely and quality legal advice that city officials seek.
“He has completely destroyed the reputation of one of the premier municipal law firms in United States,” said former Assistant City Attorney John Kaheny, who organizes an e-mail list that consistently commentates on Aguirre’s performance.
Aguirre’s supporters, however, maintain that his break with the office’s tradition is welcome.
“He tells the truth, he reads the contracts … and he came with no strings attached,” said Otto Emme, a La Jolla resident and former county grand juror. “He looks under every nook and cranny.”
Aguirre has often butted heads with other elected official because of his confrontational style. He has repeatedly accused four current council members – Scott Peters, Toni Atkins, Brian Maienschein and Jim Madaffer – of breaking the law when they helped approve the 2002 pension deal he is attacking in court and for not releasing pertinent financial information to investors. Councilwoman Donna Frye approved the defective bonds too, but Aguirre has largely given her a pass.
On Monday, however, Aguirre said he wanted to cooperate with the council more closely during the second half of his term.
The city attorney offered to help the four council members resolve any issues they have outstanding in the SEC’s ongoing investigation of City Hall, now that his client – the city government – has settled.
“I wouldn’t be looking for a pound of flesh, I’d just be trying to get the work resolved,” Aguirre said.
One council member, Peters, said he thought the gesture was “a nice thing to say,” but said he wasn’t aware that he was the target in an SEC investigation that he needed to resolve.
Peters, who serves as council president, wouldn’t comment on his past criticism that Aguirre hasn’t fulfilled his duties to the council, and instead said that he hoped that the two usual rivals could work together.
“I think it’s only for the good,” Peters said. “We’ve heard things like that before, but I hope it’s sincere.”