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Tuesday, February 06, 2007 | Civil Suit Circus

City Attorney Mike Aguirre and the attorneys for eight former and current city and pension officials showed up to court Friday to argue over a tentative ruling that amounted to a “mixed bag” — as the judge said — in the conflict-of-interest lawsuit.

One defendant has been stricken from the case and Aguirre is trying to prove that the other seven all had improper financial interests in controversial pension deals dating back to 1996.

The civil lawsuit’s defendants are former retirement Administrator Larry Grissom; the pension system’s former attorney, Lori Chapin; former Deputy City Attorney Bruce Herring and five former pension trustees — firefighters union President Ron Saathoff, management analyst Sharon Wilkinson, former Assistant City Auditor Terri Webster, fingerprint examiner John Torres and former Human Resources Director Cathy Lexin.

Aguirre’s case, which he admits is a back-up plan to a separate legal challenge as part of his efforts to knock $700 million off the city’s $1.39 billion pension debt, is based on a state law that exempts salary and pension benefits from being used against an official who is accused of having a conflict of interest under that statute. So far, the case has centered on Aguirre trying to prove that the defendants were rewarded in other ways than just the blanket pension enhancements that all other city employees received.

Superior Court Judge Steven Denton tentatively agreed with Aguirre’s claims that all of the defendants besides Herring are being accused of receiving payoffs other than salary or pension increases. The judge allowed Herring to be dropped from the lawsuit.

Aguirre is trying to convince the judge to move forward on the case because the remaining defendants either received a special pension benefit that other employees did not get, such as the promise of legal indemnity for the pension trustees, more pay solely for Grissom, a new job for Chapin or special benefits that Webster and Saathoff were eligible to receive.

Defense attorneys are contesting the validity of all those points.

Aguirre and the other attorneys have 10 days to straighten their arguments on those issues, and the judge is expected to take another 10 days to hand down a final ruling on the defendants’ attempts to have the case dropped.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Magneto Meeting

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority’s strategic planning committee will weigh in on the magnetic-levitation train discussion when it meets Monday morning at 10.

It’ll be the first formal presentation of the San Diego Association of Governments study, which has been touted by U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista, as an answer to questions surrounding the viability of an airport in Imperial County.

The study found that a maglev train would be feasible but expensive — between $15 billion and $25 billion, depending on the route.

The committee will also get a look at basic criteria applied to the military bases being studied for possible joint civilian-military use. We wrote about that issue when it was brought up at a board meeting earlier this month.

Check out the brief Monday agenda here.

— ROB DAVIS

Real Accurate

The National Association of Realtors issued a report this week about home sales that said nationwide sales had rebounded in February, and they had an interesting reason why.

“Weather conditions across much of the country were unseasonably mild in January and likely were a factor in higher levels of buyer activity, which boosted sales that closed in February,” the association’s Web site quotes David Lereah, NAR’s chief economist as saying.

I’m a skeptic. I called a weather expert.

He said the weather in January nationwide was “incredible.” In fact, he said the difference between this January’s temperature and the normal temperature for January was the largest difference ever. He was very excited about it.

Which only leads me to conclude that home sales were, indeed, kept buoyant by the unseasonably warm weather in January.

Outside, the sun’s shining. Could be a good March too?

— WILL CARLESS

More CAR Legislation

In addition to a bill it’s sponsoring aimed at increasing professionalism among its swollen ranks, the California Association of Realtors has more legislation on the way.

The bill, which the California Assembly Business and Professions Committee approved Tuesday, addresses applications for real estate brokers’ licenses.

Brokers’ licenses are distinct from salespersons’ licenses, which are the standard for real estate agents. Real estate agents essentially work underneath brokers, who hold their licenses. Having a brokers’ license allows salespeople to work independently and represent themselves in a transaction. Brokers’ licenses are much harder to get and allow the licensee to have a number of salespeople working for them.

Existing law requires applicants for a brokers’ license to have a valid salespersons’ license and have worked as a salesperson for two years. The current law also allows applicants without experience to apply if they have graduated from a four-year college or university course with a specialization in real estate or if they have equivalent experience.

The new bill would require all applicants for a brokers’ license to have two years experience as a real estate agent. Even graduates from a four-year course would still need the requisite experience before getting their brokers’ license.

The reasoning for the new legislation is explained briefly on the CAR’s Web site.

“Because a so-called ‘degree broker’ can get a license without any experience, and hire any number of sales licensees to work under his or her license, brokers who have never sold a house may be supervising salespeople who themselves have never completed a transaction.”

And we don’t want that now, do we.

— WILL CARLESS

Prices Steady, Sales Dropping

A press release just put out by the California Association of Realtors shows San Diego’s housing prices remaining relatively steady but sales dropping off significantly.

The median price of an existing home in San Diego County rose slightly in February, from $605,600 the previous month to $608,700. The median price is up 4.6 percent from February last year.

The number of home sales in San Diego was up 4.8 percent from January, which is traditionally a very weak month for sales, but decreased by 14 percent compared to February 2005.

“Sales posted a slight increase last month compared with January 2006, as the downward drift in interest rates late last year caused an uptick in market activity,” the press release quotes CAR President Vince Malta as saying. “As expected, year-over-year sales continued to decline from the robust levels of a year ago.”

With San Diego’s home inventory at almost-record levels, the California Association of Realtors Chief Chief Economist, Leslie Appleton-Young, expressed some measured concern about price appreciation.

“We expect the pace of price appreciation to slow from the 13 to 17 percent range of 2005 to 10 percent this year as rising inventory levels mitigate some of the upward pressure on home prices,” the press release quotes Appleton-Young as saying. “The higher-priced coastal areas will see price gains in the mid-single digits while the inland areas will see increases in excess of 10 percent.”

WILL CARLESS

Inventory Tops 18,000

The number of homes up for sale in San Diego County rose above 18,000 this week, continuing its rise towards a record of 19,000 set in 1994.

As of March 20, there were 18,003 homes listed on the county’s Multiple Listings Service, according to ZIP Realty, a real estate information service.

Realtors have ben adding, on average, 35 homes a day to the MLS since the beginning of the month. At that rate, the record of 19,000 will be reached by the middle of April.

— WILL CARLESS

Another Stab at SDCERS

City Attorney Mike Aguirre is pursuing his goal to regain his office’s jurisdiction over the retirement system’s legal affairs from a different angle, filing a lawsuit Thursday against former San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System general counsel Lori Chapin.

In the lawsuit, Aguirre alleges on behalf of the city that Chapin had a conflict of interest when she helped create an agreement between the City Attorney’s Office and the SDCERS board to establish a new independent legal office at SDCERS. The lawsuit argues that Chapin, who provided legal advice to SDCERS as a deputy city attorney, improperly benefited from the office’s creation by positioning herself to become the pension system’s chief legal counsel.

Aguirre claims the 1998 contract that created the general counsel position should be declared void and that the City Attorney’s Office should be reinstalled as the system’s legal department.

The city attorney failed this month to sway Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Barton that he was the chief legal advisor for SDCERS, and the judge sided with the retirement system’s claim that it should have separate counsel. Aguirre originally said he would not appeal that portion of his case against SDCERS, which also aims to strip away $700 million in pension benefits from the city’s $1.39 billion pension shortfall, but vowed to campaign against the judge the next time he is up for election. This week he filed a motion to reconsider with the judge.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Curious George

Mayor Jerry Sanders got some face time with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney this morning at the White House.

The mayor spent 90 minutes talking immigration reform proposals with Bush, Cheney, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and a handful of other officials, said Fred Sainz, the mayor’s spokesman.

Sanders also met with the Homeland Security Council to lobby against the plan to remove San Diego from a list of cities eligible for grant funding through the Urban Area Security Initiative.

“This was in essence building blocks to put a name with a face and a face with San Diego,” Sainz said.

— ROB DAVIS

Step Into My Office

Three City Council members confirmed Wednesday that they were handed subpoenas from the City Attorney’s Office that seek the officials’ depositions.

City Attorney Mike Aguirre has requested that Council President Scott Peters, Councilwoman Toni Atkins and Councilman Jim Madaffer answer questions related to his lawsuit against the retirement system. Aguirre is hoping a court rules to knock $700 million off the city’s $1.39 billion pension deficit.

The episode is the latest in a contentious debate over the city attorney’s role, in which Aguirre argues that he is an independent officeholder who serves the public’s interest. Several council members say he should represent them.

Peters said he would rather speak with the city attorney in the confidence of attorney-client privilege instead of having to use a separate attorney at taxpayer expense. Aguirre would not comment when asked about the depositions Wednesday.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Open for Business

The North American Development Bank — a rare funding source for cross-border public health issues that plague the San Diego region — appears to have escaped the gallows, though U.S. Treasury officials are continuing to search for ways to make it more effective.

When we wrote about the bank last week, its future was up in the air and the border’s congressional representation was freaked out. The bank was founded 12 years ago as an environmental concession to the North American Free Trade Agreement, an acknowledgment that NAFTA would exacerbate existing health issues in the border region.

But U.S. Treasury officials and their Mexican counterparts at Hacienda recently began discussing the bank’s mission, and many border representatives — including U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista — had petitioned Treasury Secretary John Snow to keep the bank open.

“We have no immediate plans to close the bank,” Treasury spokeswoman Brookly McLaughlin said today. “But we do have on-going concerns with the bank, particularly the lending function.”

McLaughlin pointed out that the bank issued $24 million in loans in the United States in the last 12 years, while incurring $60 million in administrative costs. To be clear: it cost $60 million to loan $24 million.

But Juan Antonio Flores, the bank’s spokesman, said that figure is misleading and expressed worry that the Treasury Department would use skewed numbers to justify closing the bank.

The bank’s overhead was incurred not only while lending money in the United States, but also while lending $80 million in Mexico, Flores said. An additional $100 million in loans are pending. The administrative costs also include awarding and giving technical assistant to $600 million in grants the bank has given on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Flores acknowledged that changes need to be made to improve the bank. He said it would benefit by expanding its lending criteria to encompass private companies and public-private partnerships. Awarding more loans in the United States would allow the bank to redirect those profits into grant development, Flores said.

“It’s time to reassess from scratch the role of the institution,” Flores said, “especially from the U.S. side.”

ROB DAVIS

One More Auditor

Councilwoman Donna Frye announced today that the Mayor’s Office had accepted her request for an audit to determine if money from increased sewer and water rates in 2002 was indeed spent toward sewer and water infrastructure improvements.

In a memo authored today, city CFO Jay Goldstone tells Frye than an auditing firm will be chosen within the next month and a full report will be available in two or three months.

The probe will be separate from those undertaken by two other auditing firms and an audit committee, who have been scouring the city’s books back to 2003 in attempts to eventually release the long-delayed fiscal year 2003 audits.

ANDREW DONOHUE

$700K in Pension Bills

The pension system has paid out nearly $700,000 in legal bills for its current and former board members and staff in connection with the system’s strife and the Justice Department’s ongoing federal investigation.

The pension board’s decision last week to pay the legal bills for two former staff members who have been indicted on federal corruption charges caused quite a stir, in part, because of the potential cost to the troubled pension fund. It is estimated that their bills will reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But a number of staff and board members were interviewed by federal investigators prior to the Jan. 6 charges brought against five former pension officials and the system has paid  $697,500 for their legal representation. 

The pension system covers legal fees for board and staff members when they are involved in civil lawsuits or called as witnesses in a criminal investigation. Until Friday, the board didn’t pay legal bills for staff once they’d been officially charged with a crime. However, last Friday the board voted to pay the legal fees for indicted former staff members Lori Chapin and Larry Grissom, who have been accused of fraud and conspiracy by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In addition to Chapin and Grissom, three former pension board members have also been charged in connection with a 2002 pension pact at the heart of the city’s ongoing woes.

The three remaining defendants may ask the pension board to do the same for them. An attorney for one of the three told Voice of San Diego yesterday that requesting the pension board to pick up their legal tabs is “something that must be considered, definitely.”

The legal bills, obtained by the Voice through a Public Records Act request, are heavily blacked out. The duties performed by most of the lawyers are blacked out and some bills are so heavily redacted that it is impossible to determine for which employee or trustee the legal work was performed. 

Several defendants in the federal case, and a similar one brought by the district attorney, are having troubles retaining their lawyers because of the financial burden imposed by the case.

ANDREW DONOHUE

Thinking of moving to sunny San Diego? An inquisitive poster on the Craiglist.org housing forum is, and he asked local people to give him their opinions on the different neighborhoods of San Diego.

I particularly liked this reply, as amusing as it is comprehensive:

“Downtown: Want action/Got bucks or a tolerance and old, rundown — but hip place.

PB: Drink or surf. Better yet, drink and surf/Got bucks or don’t mind two or three roommates in a noisy complex.

MB: Drink a lot and surf a lot./Got major money or don’t mind living with three or four roommates in a noisy complex.

OB: Want granola? Soy? Cheap wine? Surfing?/Got some money or don’t mind roommates? How do you feel about the more than occasional angry wino? Great neighborhood feel, but can be scary.

La Jolla: Want to be away from the riff-raff./Got lots of money or lots of roommates. (BTW: La Jolla is really kind of a small town at night. Sure they gots lots of expensive shops, but it is DEAD at night.)

UTC: (Pretends to be part of La Jolla) Want UCSD education, or a ‘safe’ place to live and don’t care that you must drive to do anything but sit at home and know that your ‘neighborhood’ is just a collection of affluent transients./Got some money or can tolerate roommates.

Clairemont/Mira Mesa/Kearney Mesa/Serra Mesa/ San Carlos: Nobody in their 20s really ‘wants’ to live there.

Mission Valley: Same as UTC, but a little less pricey, a little less affluent. Okay — and a little more “party” oriented: drinking & casual sex. Lots of frat and sorority types.

Golden Hills: Want hip, neighborhood, walk to stuff, be sort of near downtown./Got tolerance for some shady types and dicey blocks.

North Park: The great catch-basin for 20 somethings: Semi-hip, semi-scary, semi-reasonably priced. Almost everyone ends up in NP at some time in their life.

Hillcrest: Hip, gay/Need dough

University Heights: Hillcrest east — a little less hip, a little less gay/A little less dough

Normal Heights: University Heights east: Still less hip and less gay-but catching up!/Reasonably priced, but some scary streets in NH. Some nice streets, some good restaurants, but some scary streets — south of Adams can be tough.

City Heights/East San Diego/Chollas/Logan: Are you adventurous? Do you like street entrepreneurs? Pit bulls? Cheap housing there.”

Hope that helps any would-be San Diego transplants.

— WILL CARLESS

Moye Plus One

Voice of San Diego infantile issues columnist David Moye and his wife had a healthy baby boy Tuesday at 9:51 a.m. If there are any astrology experts out there who may know what that means for little Owen’s future, be sure to share.

Moye’s readers may remember his offer to give naming rights of the boy to any private school that might enroll him for free. Turns out, Moye’s son will have a middle name of Brian. It appears no school took them up on the offer.

— SCOTT LEWIS

Fewer Condos

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 — 12:13 p.m.

The number of downtown condos listed on the San Diego County Multiple Listings Service this week dropped slightly from last week, according to figures collated by downtown Realtor Lew Breeze.

As of today, there are 473 condos listed in the 92101 ZIP code. That’s down from last week’s figure of 479 condos. The median price of condos listed stayed exactly the same after several weeks of price drops, coming in at $636,250.

Breeze has been compiling the statistics since 2003 on his Web site www.92101.info

—WILL CARLESS

Ewell Be Reading E-mails

City Attorney Mike Aguirre released a selected batch of former City Manager Lamont Ewell’s e-mail related to the outside audit committee Tuesday evening to the local media.

Aguirre disbursed the handpicked messages weeks after it was reported by a local newspaper that up to 9,000 of Ewell’s messages were reportedly erased. An employee later found a backup tape that contained the e-mails, and Aguirre said he launched a criminal investigation into the deletion.

We at Voice thought we’d share one interesting exchange for your entertainment as we pick through the documents. The following is an e-mail conversation between Ewell and Michael Young, an attorney for the audit committee, that took place last October.

Young: Got a check today. Thanks. Mike

Ewell: Great, care to share it?

Young: What a wit! (You always start this early?)

Ewell: When you are dealing with the likes of Aguirre, you have no choice but to start early. I continue to reflect back on the time when I first met you and your colleagues. It was great watching you each attempt to create a professional working relationship with the Anti-Christ!

Voice is currently reviewing the stack of documents and we’ll be posting any documents deemed noteworthy as we proceed.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Fox Canyon Fiasco

The San Diego City Council decided to approve the environmental review of a proposed park and road project in City Heights after initially rejecting the required study hours earlier.

The change of heart came when several council members realized that they would likely miss an upcoming deadline to receive a multimillion-dollar state grant to build a park in Fox Canyon if they didn’t have an environmental review approved by May.

Opponents of the road filed an appeal to city staff’s recommendation that the environmental impacts of the road and the park were minimal and manageable. It frustrated many council members that they were not supposed to comment on the emotionally-charged project itself but only the environmental document.

“I’m struggling to separate the issues,” Councilwoman Toni Atkins said.

After city staff told the council that it was unlikely that a new study could be completed in such short time, Atkins changed her vote which tipped the balance in favor of the study.

Atkins, Councilwoman Donna Frye and Councilman Tony Young initially voted to reject the environmental document because they claimed the city’s environmental study did not adequately address the impacts of extending Ontario Avenue through Fox Canyon to link to nearby neighborhood streets.

Council President Scott Peters and Councilmen Jim Madaffer, Ben Hueso and Kevin Faulconer also voted to ratify the study. Councilman Brian Maienschein was absent Tuesday.

City staff said the road will not get built with the tax-increment funding from the Crossroads redevelopment area unless the council, sitting as the San Diego Redevelopment Agency, approved the expenditure. Atkins said she would approve Tuesday’s proposal only if the road would be reconsidered in the future and only if a separate memo of the road’s impacts on the surrounding community would be taken up again.

Several residents from the Fox Canyon community showed up to the council meeting, mostly speaking about the park and road proposals itself and not the validity of the accompanying environmental document.

The room was divided: Many believed the road would help reduce traffic along the neighborhood streets but others thought that the street ruined the whole park project because it produced new pollution and blocked off access to Auburn Creek.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Update: Sanders Does NY

Some of our intelligent, pleasant-smelling and always well-informed readers have asked us a good question: Who were the business folks that accompanied Mayor Jerry Sanders at the press conference in the This Just In posted earlier today? (See our 1:03 p.m. entry.)

So here we go with the unofficial tally: Tom Wornham, executive vice president of Wells Fargo Bank; Hank Nordhoff, chairman of Gen-Probe Inc.; Chris Van Gorder, CEO of Scripps Healthcare; Debbie Reed, president of SDG&E; Greg Wilfahrt, executive vice president, SMS.ac; Hui Cai, MBA student at the Rady School at UCSD; Steve Francis, chairman, AMN Healthcare; Ben Haddad, senior vice president, SAIC; Keri Minehart, communications manager of the Rady School; Sherm Harmer, Downtown Residential Builders Association; Jean Hitchcock, vice president at Scripps Health; and Barry Stagg, vice president of corporate communications, SMS.ac; and Mitch Mitchell, SDG&E’s regional vice president of external affairs.

— ANDREW DONOHUE

Gotta Get Paid

Richard Carson, chairman of the University of California, San Diego economics department, challenges the conventional wisdom that the region needs a new airport and has provided his unsolicited analysis and opinions for free.

Seth Young has not. He’s the consultant the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority hired to analyze Carson’s findings. Young has countered Carson’s arguments and reinforced the idea that the regional will suffer great economic harm without a new airport.

Young, an associate professor in the college of business at Florida-based Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, has so far earned $30,000 for his work. Authority spokeswoman Diana Lucero said he’s been compensated for analyzing Carson’s findings and a 2001 economic impact study crafted when the Port of San Diego ran the airport, as well as for making three presentations to the authority.

Young has a $49,000 contract with the authority that runs from December 2005 to December 2006.

Young has been contracted through the International Aviation Management Group, the small firm of which he’s president.

— ROB DAVIS

Tijuana’s sewage is high-tailing it north. Yesterday, the county’s Department of Environmental Health closed water access in Imperial Beach. Closures in Coronado and Silver Strand State Beach followed today.

Three rain showers in the last three days have awakened the Tijuana River, which captures storm water and sewage runoff from Tijuana. The sickly smelling stew — laced with raw waste and pounds of metals such as chromium, nickel and silver — chugs down the cement-lined river basin and gets spit out into the Pacific Ocean. Currents have continued pushing it north.

Today marks the one-month anniversary of the closing of water access at the Tijuana Slough Wildlife Refuge and Border Field State Park, which shut down after a quarter-inch of rain fell Feb. 19.

— ROB DAVIS

Sanders Does NY, DC

Mayor Jerry Sanders and a throng of big names and big titles in the business community are heading to New York and Washington, D.C., in a public relations campaign to combat the bad national press that has San Diego has received in the two-plus years of its fiscal and political meltdown.

The message: The building blocks of financial reform have been set in city government and the region’s economy is strong.

Sanders gave a long list of things that he has done in his first few months to solve San Diego’s financial mess, a list he will also provide to the national media. However, the mayor and the business delegates will be traveling to New York at a time when the core issues that have grabbed national headlines remain unresolved. Federal investigations of city government continue and no comprehensive solutions to the city’s pension problems and retiree health care issues have been put forward.

Sanders said his April 14 budget proposal will begin to deal with a number of the city’s problems.

The mayor and his business pals plan to meet with the following publications: The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fortune Magazine, Business Week, The Bond Buyer and Bloomberg.

The trip is part of a larger PR push — named “San Diego Works” — by the San Diego Economic Development Corp. to attract businesses to the region. The push is aimed, in part, to fight back against campaigns launched by other regions and states to attract businesses from California and San Diego specifically. (For example, Voice recently wrote that Las Vegas is trying hard to get San Diego businesses to relocate to the desert.)

The campaign includes $220,000 in ads placed in a number of national news and business publications, including Time, Newsweek, Inc., Fortune and Forbes. The campaign is being financed by business leaders, officials said.

An EDC official said there were no case studies of businesses leaving San Diego because of its governmental collapse, but said there was no way to measure whether growing and relocating businesses had eliminated San Diego because of City Hall’s troubles.

The mayor said he will also be meeting with defense and homeland security officials in the nation’s capitol.

— ANDREW DONOHUE

Legal Fee Spigot Open?

The retirement board decided Friday to pay the legal costs for two of the five former pension officials who were indicted by a federal grand jury in January for their role in a controversial pension funding arrangement, and it’s conceivable they could be asked to do the same for the remaining three defendants, too. 

The two ex-retirement staffers, administrator Larry Grissom and attorney Lori Chapin, were given conditional legal defense. The San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System will pay their attorney fees as long as Grissom and Chapin put up collateral for the fees and that their attorneys bill the system at a set rate.

But what about the former retirement trustees who are also on trial in the federal corruption case? Firefighters president Ron Saathoff, former Human Resources Director Cathy Lexin and former Assistant Auditor Terri Webster are also named in the U.S. attorney’s corruption case.

The current SDCERS trustees who voted in support of sponsoring the two staffers’ defense on Friday said they expected to get aid from the retirement system if they ever ran into Johnny Law.

Saathoff’s attorney, Jerry Coughlan, said Tuesday that he had not conferred with his client or other attorneys in the case whether they should ask the retirement board for legal defense, but said such a request is possible.

“That’s something that has to be considered, absolutely,” Coughlan said.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Going North

Bill Lopez, the city of San Diego’s director of risk management, will be leaving his post and taking a position as chief administrative officer for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

The mayor’s spokesman stressed that the city’s new leadership didn’t want to see Lopez go.

“He has proven to be extremely adept and his contributions to the ongoing reorganization are very valuable. We will miss him,” said Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz.

Lopez’s effectiveness might have been a bit hampered though by his ongoing conflict with City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who has repeatedly lobbed accusations at Lopez.

“The best revenge is to live well,” Lopez said in an interview. “I plan to live extremely well. While I’ll miss San Diego, I think of it as a new adventure for my family.”

— SCOTT LEWIS

Chulajuana?

Is Chula Vista still considered “the ghetto?” That’s what one recent poster on the Craigslist San Diego Housing Forum wanted to know.

“What is it really like there? When I talk to people about Chula Vista they basically act like it’s a dirty word, but I see so many ads for beautiful new home communities there. It’s one of the few areas where there are still tons of new homes and seemingly nice master-planned communities that are still in the realm of being affordable,” writes the poster.

“I’m getting so sick of the prices in the North County area I’m considering going South,” they add.

The replies (15 in all) give some insight into how San Diegans perceive the rapidly growing community south of downtown.

Chula Vista is “gang-central” claims one poster.

“Chula Vista is very ghetto with severe Mexican gang problems,” they write. “Plaza Bonita has gang shootings and gang fights on an ongoing basis.”

That detractor has some advice, however:

“Just stick with the really NEW stuff tho, you’ll be fine. It’s the older areas that suck REALLY bad.”

Another poster claims the area is known by many San Diegans as “Chula-juana,” which he says is a shame, considering the area’s new developments and attractive waterfront.

On the other end of the scale, one poster points out that Chula Vista has some very “upscale” areas.

“Most of the new stuff is east of the 805 off Telegraph Canyon road — massive amounts of new construction down there,” writes that positive poster. “The older area is west of 805 to the 5, it’s not really ghetto at all, people are stupid like that. They confuse National City and Downtown Chula.”

I, for one, can’t wait to see the discussion over National City’s “ghetto-worthiness.”

— WILL CARLESS

Fed Case Continues

The five former city of San Diego pension officials charged with corruption by the U.S. Attorney’s Office made brief appearances in court Monday, although the only motion pending in the hearing was postponed because of unresolved questions regarding the defendants’ legal representation.

Three of the defendants have also been charged by the district attorney and have been involved in other civil cases stemming from pension agreements struck in 1996 and 2002. As such, they may not have the financial resources to pay attorneys for proceedings that could take a number of years.

One defendant, the former human resources director for the city, Cathy Lexin, has received a court-appointed defense attorney. Ron Saathoff, president of the firefighters union, and Terri Webster, the city’s former assistant auditor, don’t yet have official legal representation because of financial concerns. 

Two other defendants, Lori Chapin and Larry Grissom — the two former top staff members at the pension system, found out Friday that the pension system would cover their legal bills. Chapin’s attorney, Thomas McNamara, said he was studying whether or not he could take the case because of conflict concerns raised by prosecutors.

Because of the questions surrounding legal representation, Judge Roger T. Benitez postponed ruling on a government motion asking that the case be deemed “complex.” Doing so would postpone a trial date in order to give attorneys time to sift through evidence containing what prosecutors estimate to be hundreds of thousands of documents.

For example, the Strippergate case against two former city councilmen was deemed “complex” and didn’t make it to trial until nearly two years after charges were filed.

Benitez expressed disappointment Friday that representation issues were still undecided more than two months after charges had been filed. He informed defendants who were having financial problems that they could apply for a court-appointed public defender or represent themselves.

“These issues shouldn’t take so long to resolve,” Benitez said.

He rescheduled the hearing for May 10. A separate hearing on legal representation is scheduled for Tuesday before Magistrate Judge Leo Papas, who is handling other issues in the case.

— ANDREW DONOHUE

City Attorney Mike Aguirre addressed a slew of topics in his midday press conference today, including a new lawsuit he said his office is ready to file this week against the pension system’s former in-house counsel. The city attorney said:

— The $162 million bill presented from the pension system to the city Friday doesn’t cover the city’s legal obligations because it wasn’t “an honest presentation of the debt.”

— He is filing a motion today with Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Barton to reconsider a ruling earlier this month that rejected Aguirre’s bid to have the City Attorney’s Office reinstated as the chief legal counsel to the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System.

— He will file this week a civil lawsuit against SDCERS’ former chief legal counsel, Lori Chapin, claiming that she unlawfully benefited personally from the creation of the independent, in-house legal counsel for the pension system. The aim of the lawsuit is to have the creation of the office nullified under law, a move that would revert the pension system’s legal representation back to Aguirre’s office.

— Former City Manager Lamont Ewell’s e-mails, once thought to have been lost to deletion, have been reviewed and separated into two groups: those related to the federal government’s criminal investigation and those that are available for public consumption. Aguirre said he will release the e-mails by subject matter shortly.

The city attorney also said that he believed it was wrong for the city’s enterprise funds to help pay the bills of attorneys and accountants hired to sort out the city’s legal and financial mess. Enterprise funds are accounts separate from the city’s day-to-day operational budge,t that are self-supported through user fees. Such functions as sewers and golf courses have their own enterprise funds.

Aguirre said the funds are essentially victims of past alleged unlawful activity and shouldn’t have to pay to rectify these problems. However, Aguirre said Mayor Jerry Sanders and the city’s outside auditors don’t agree with him and have approved of having the enterprise funds contribute to the consultant fees. The payments became an issue during a January hearing in which the City Council approved an additional $10.3 million for consultants.

— ANDREW DONOHUE

Inventory Still Climbing

The total number of homes listed for sale on the Multiple Listings Service for San Diego County is approaching its previous record of 19,000 homes, a record that was set in July 1995.

There are currently 17,932 homes listed on the MLS, that’s up from a record low of 2,301 homes in March 2004. The amount of inventory has grown from 13,916 at the beginning of 2006 and has been increasing by about 2,000 homes a month since January.

Inventory levels are important because, generally, the more houses that are on the market, the longer a home will take to sell. The shift upwards in San Diego’s inventory has been characterized by many experts as a transition from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market.

— WILL CARLESS

Some Other Pension Bills

The retirement board decided Friday to pay the legal bills for two former staff members who were indicted in January for their alleged roles in the passage of a controversial pension benefit.

After not garnering enough votes several weeks ago, the retirement board squeezed out the votes needed for the retirement system to pay for the legal defense for former pension administrator Larry Grissom and in-house attorney Lori Chapin.

Because of the vacancies on the 13-seat panel, the retirement board garnered a majority but not the seven votes needed to pick up the legal costs for Grissom and Chapin at the Jan. 31 meeting.

Friday’s vote sufficed, as it passed by a 7-to-2 margin. Retiree representative Joe Flynn and citizen trustee Tom Hebrank voted no.

Grissom and Chapin were charged by the U.S. attorney along with three former retirement trustees for allegedly benefiting from a deal the retirement board approved in 2002 that allowed the city to skip its retirement bill.

By granting the two former staff members legal defense Friday, the board affirmatively found that they had acted within the scope of their employment, in good faith, and in the best interest of the system, and that it was in the system’s best interest to pay their attorney fees.

Picking up their defense tabs came with some strings attached. The board capped the hourly rate that their lawyers could charge and required collateral for the defense costs should the former staffers be found guilty.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

$162M Pension Payment Due

The city’s pension deficit grew by a marginal amount to $1.39 billion in the past year and City Hall will be asked to pay $162 million to the fund in July, roughly the same it paid last year.

The announcement ends speculation that the city will have to make a budget-busting payment to the retirement system in the coming year. However, the consultant who presented the city’s bill said the bill would likely be higher if it wanted to use more sound assumptions to safeguard the retirement fun’s health.

The figures presented to the retirement board Friday are an actuarial snapshot of the fund’s health as of June 30, 2005. A year earlier, the fun was calculated to have a deficit of $1.37 billion and the city paid $163 million.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Dueling Economists

Two economists with very different views of the need for a new San Diego airport will square off Monday morning at a specially called San Diego County Regional Airport Authority meeting.

Richard Carson, chairman of the economics department at University of California, San Diego, will discuss reasons why he thinks a 2001 economic analysis of San Diego’s future air needs is flawed. The analysis projects San Diego could lose $94 billion in gross regional product if air traffic gets too constrained. Carson says that estimate is about $94 billion off.

Seth Young, associate professor in the College of Business at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., will follow with a presentation that will essentially tell Carson why he’s mostly wrong.

“Sometimes it looks like a battle on the outside, me versus him,” Young said. “But it’s two honest objectives — different views.”

The presentations immediately follow a 9:30 a.m. authority committee meeting. The agenda is posted here.

— ROB DAVIS

Desert Levitation

The San Diego Association of Government is releasing a study today that will say a magnetic levitation train to the Imperial Desert is “technically feasible.”

The maglev has been endorsed by Congressman Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista, who solicited the federal earmark that paid for part of the analysis. The upside: It’d be a quick ride to an Imperial County airport. The downside: It could cost $20 billion.

The study is going to be released by 5 p.m. today and will be posted here.

— ROB DAVIS

Big Day Friday

People often wonder how a far-off, multi-billion dollar pension deficit really affects them. After all, all those billions of dollars aren’t immediately due today, right?

Well, Friday will be a crucial day in helping citizens understand exactly why and how that pension deficit is important. The pension system’s consultants are preparing their annual snapshot of the pension system’s health and will deliver it to the pension board in the morning.

And, as part of that report, the pension system will tell the city exactly how much it owes to the pension system out of its 2007 budget. Last year the city put in about $165 million of its $865 million operating budget into the pension system. That number is expected to climb come tomorrow (it has climbed significantly in recent years).

And every dollar that it does increase means one dollar that will be taken from basic city services such as parks, libraries, police officers and fire equipment. In recent years, the pension system’s escalating bill has forced gradual decreases in services levels. Absent significant reform, these and other related benefit costs will continue to chew up ever-growing chunks of the money that would otherwise be going to city services.

Check the Voice‘s This Just In throughout the day for updates and Saturday morning for a complete story. (We’re also going to have a Q&A with Padres CEO Sandy Alderson on Saturday, too.)

— ANDREW DONOHUE

Congressional Chat

For you all airport proposal enthusiasts out there: Congress is coming.

U.S. Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House subcommittee on aviation, will be part of a roundtable discussion Tuesday with U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista, to talk about San Diego’s air capacity constraints and the search for a new airport site.

In case you’re not familiar with Mica’s subcommittee — part of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure — it’s the one with jurisdiction over national aviation infrastructure planning.

Mayor Jerry Sanders has also been invited, and Joe Craver, chairman of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, will also be there.

The roundtable (you’re invited) runs from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday in Room 29 of the San Diego Convention Center. Map it: 111 West Harbor Drive, 92101.

— ROB DAVIS

D-Day: June 23

San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre asked a Superior Court judge Thursday in a brief filed with the court to rule on the legality of pension benefit enhancements granted to employees dating back to 1996. Aguirre says the pension benefits were never funded properly and created in corrupt agreements.

With eight months of procedural issues behind him in the high-profile case, the motion asks the judge to make a decision in the case. Aguirre has estimated that voiding the benefits could knock $700 million off the projected $2 billion the city owes to its retirement system.

Judge Jeffrey Barton is expected to rule on the matter June 23, which Aguirre called San Diego’s “D-Day.” Check Friday’s issue for a full story.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Hot Dog

After a brief bomb scare, Cox Arena staff just received the green light to open up their gates to March Madness fans.

Marquette was set to tip off against Alabama at 11:40 a.m. today, but a bomb-sniffing dog “went hot” near a hot-dog cart and University Police temporarily shut down the stadium.

The FBI and the Metro Arson Strike Team are investigating why the dog reacted to the hot-dog cart, according to a San Diego State University spokesman. Three gates are still shut down while the San Diego Fire Department clears its gear from the area.

— SAM HODGSON

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