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Monday, April 2, 2007 | Next year’s San Diego City Council races are quietly beginning to take shape, as prospective candidates have started making the rounds to community groups and political activists in hope of shoring up early support.

When that new class emerges in 2008, it will leave a group of termed-out council members who stood center stage in the city’s roiling political and legal drama looking for a new job.

Coming to Terms

  • The Issue: Four of the council members in office during the city’s political and financial turmoil will be termed out of office in 2008.
  • What It Means: While at least some of them have expressed future political aspirations, local politicos say they will have to battle hard to overcome their very public political struggles.
  • The Bigger Picture: Each of the four council members — Scott Peters, Toni Atkins, Brian Maienschein and Jim Madaffer — have been on the council since 2000. Voters in 2008 will usher in four new council members in those districts.

Service on the City Council has historically been used as a springboard to other political offices far and wide, from the Mayor’s Office to the statehouse to Capitol Hill. And at least one of the incumbents whose second term on council expires in 2008, Councilwoman Toni Atkins, has set her sights on a post in the state Assembly.

But the City Hall experience that would normally bolster a candidate’s resume could become a stain for Atkins and the rest of the council’s Class of 2008 — Scott Peters, Brian Maienschein and Jim Madaffer — if they choose to run for office again. Their chances of standing election again will, fairly or not, be tied to the political controversy that engulfed City Hall over their tenure.

“Any council member going against a well funded opponent who can run a credible campaign, they’re going to bring up the council’s problems, and that’s going to be very difficult to run away from,” said pollster John Nienstedt, president of Competitive Edge Research & Communication.

Those four council members argue the turmoil that claimed the political careers of a mayor and two council colleagues has cooled down. They contend the city government was already broken when they came to office in 2001, and that the scars that were exposed since then are well on their way to being patched up.

But if their next move involves another run at elected office, other politicos say it won’t be so easy to shake off the damage that has been wrought so publicly: the high-priced Kroll report’s deeming them negligent, national headlines proclaiming the city “Enron-by-the-Sea,” and pension deals that continue to chew up money that could otherwise be spent on city services.

And City Attorney Mike Aguirre, whose position as the city’s chief counsel is normally designated for protecting officials in such calamitous times, has instead hounded the four officials — much to the detriment of the council’s public image.

An Uncertain Future

Stained by the fallout over the San Diego’s financial turmoil, political observers say four termed council members will have a hard time if they run for another political office.


Scott
Peters

“When we came into office, the city was broken. It may not have looked like that, but it blew up because things weren’t fixed in a long time.”


Toni
Atkins

“I hope the citizens recognize that we are intent on fixing problems for the long term, not just while we’re here.”


Brian
Maienschein

“Politics, for whatever reason, invites a circus atmosphere. It is what it is.”


Jim
Madaffer

“I would say that I had my Aguirre years and my pre-Aguirre years.”


Scott
Peters

“When we came into office, the city was broken. It may not have looked like that, but it blew up because things weren’t fixed in a long time.”


Toni
Atkins

“I hope the citizens recognize that we are intent on fixing problems for the long term, not just while we’re here.”


Brian
Maienschein

“Politics, for whatever reason, invites a circus atmosphere. It is what it is.”


Jim
Madaffer

“I would say that I had my Aguirre years and my pre-Aguirre years.”


Scott
Peters

“When we came into office, the city was broken. It may not have looked like that, but it blew up because things weren’t fixed in a long time.”


Toni
Atkins

“I hope the citizens recognize that we are intent on fixing problems for the long term, not just while we’re here.”


Brian
Maienschein

“Politics, for whatever reason, invites a circus atmosphere. It is what it is.”


Jim
Madaffer

“I would say that I had my Aguirre years and my pre-Aguirre years.”

With those ingredients simmering over the past few years, political consultants said they find these council members to be a very tough sell to local voters.

“It’s highly unlikely that any of them would be elected to any meaningful public office in San Diego ever again,” said one veteran political consultant, who agreed to comment only if allowed anonymity out of fear of retribution. “Any consultant running a campaign against them would have a field day.”

But some council members said they don’t think they will have to ask for much forgiveness if they run for office again. “By the end of our terms, the city will be in a much healthier position than when we started,” said Peters, who serves as council president. He continued, “When we came into office, the city was broken. It may not have looked like that, but it blew up because things weren’t fixed in a long time.”

Peters argues that the city’s switch to a strong-mayor form of governance has made the council more effective through the creation of the Office of the Independent Budget Analyst. The office has been instrumental in providing the legislators with detailed advice about proposals the mayor’s management team brings forward, a check Peters said would have caught some of the city’s past errors.

Under this council, Peters said, the city stopped underfunding the pension, hammered out labor contracts that stem the growth of the city’s billion-dollar pension deficit, created an Ethics Commission, finished the downtown ballpark after it was delayed by various litigation, and reduced the rate of sewer spills by 80 percent.

Peters said that his well-heeled opponent, Phil Thalheimer, probably would have ousted him from office in 2004, when the controversy was heating up, if voters really sensed that the city was getting worse. “The reason I got reelected is that people didn’t want to point fingers but they wanted to fix it,” he said.

Atkins said she’s optimistic voters see her and the council as having the best intentions for fixing the city. “I hope the citizens recognize that we are intent on fixing problems for the long term, not just while we’re here,” she said.

But Peters, Atkins, Maienschein and Madaffer comprise the core of a City Council that has been skewered publicly in some of the most notorious episodes in the city’s history.

The four of them signed off on a deal with the retirement system in 2002 that enhanced employees’ pension benefits in exchange for allowing the city to forego its full payment into the retirement trust fund. The affair has contributed to the city’s $1 billion pension deficit, resulted in the indictments of city and labor leaders, and fueled a crusade by Aguirre to roll back the benefits that has not spared any opportunity to air the council’s dirty laundry.

In addition, the four officials approved faulty financial statements that downplayed the size of the city’s pension obligations, a debacle that has resulted in the suspension of the city’s credit rating, securities-fraud sanctions from the Securities and Exchange Commission against the city, and more than $30 million in fees for consultants to help clean up the city and restore its financial credibility on Wall Street. With the city’s audits for 2003 blessed just two weeks ago, the city remains several months away from accessing the public bond markets.

One group of consultants from Kroll Inc., led by former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt, said the four council members and others acted negligently in ensuring the city’s disclosures were accurate and deliberately concealed the fact that the city’s sewer rates violated the Clean Water Act. Together with Councilwoman Donna Frye, those sitting council members are repeatedly referred to in the editorial pages of The San Diego Union-Tribune as “the Negligent Five.”

Those headlines will likely be damaging to any aspirations the termed-out council members have for running for another office. It’s an ambition that none of the four have ruled out.

Atkins said she intends to run for the 76th Assembly District in 2010, when Democratic Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña is slated to leave Sacramento because of term limits.

Peters, Maienschein and Madaffer said they have no specific campaign plans. Peters said he may possibly return to the private law practice, but said he would explore elected office opportunities as long as they allowed him to live full time in San Diego. He has often been mentioned for a possible run for city attorney against Aguirre, his longtime foe.

Maienschein, a lawyer by trade, has been rumored as a contender for several offices, ranging from state Assembly to county supervisor to city attorney, but he said all of those opportunities are speculative and that he hasn’t decided if he’s interested in any of them.

Many believe Madaffer, a vice president at the League of California Cities, which lobbies the state on behalf of city governments, may work try to put the contacts he’s made in Sacramento to work as a lobbyist. Madaffer wouldn’t comment on what his immediate plans are, but said he is keeping his options open.

Nienstedt, the pollster, said the City Council as a whole is approved of by 50 percent of respondents in polls, while 34 percent disapprove. Those figures reflect an improvement from a few years ago, just as the calamity hit its peak.

The furor grew so hot in 2004 that Mayor Dick Murphy squeaked into office after a near three-way tie. The pressure of the city’s financial and legal distress finally proved crushing when he resigned months later.

Atkins, a Democrat, tested the waters for a run for county supervisor in 2005 to contest Republican incumbent Ron Roberts. The seat she sought represented a largely urban district, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 40,000 voters. Additionally, she raised her visibility as the interim mayor when Murphy stepped down. But after polling to gauge her chances, Atkins announced she would not compete.

Atkins said the polls showed the race was winnable, but that she preferred to finish some of the projects she was overseeing in her uptown council district. Her consultant, Jennifer Tierney, acknowledged the poll indicated that the city’s financial problems were seen as “a negative” against Atkins, but argued that it “wasn’t a deal killer.”

“I think voters have notoriously short memories. Any candidate starts out with negatives and positives, but it’s always, ‘Does the good outweigh the bad?’” Tierney said. “It depends on what race, what seat they’re running for, but I don’t think you could rule any of them out entirely because of what happened at the city.”

Others aren’t so sure. “It’s not necessarily because of their service or about what was done and wasn’t done, but it’s because during the time they served, there’s the perception that things got worse, not better,” another local consultant said.

Fanning the firestorm is Aguirre, who has ridden a popular wave of discontent over the city’s misdeeds since his election in 2005, consultants said. He declared the Kroll report — the same one that damned the council members’ actions — to be a cover-up. He has called for their resignation multiple times, implicated them as being heavily involved in the city’s past dealings and rarely passes up a chance to lambaste the council members before reporters and other audiences.

His targets counter by calling his accusations hyperbole. “He’s made it clear he’ll say anything and make any claim, and when you finally look at his record it’s not very impressive,” Peters said, noting that Aguirre’s lawsuit against the pension deals and the allegations that the council members are charged with securities fraud have floundered, among other things.

“In 2005, all of the things he said I felt very strongly were wrong and it was painful,” Peters said. “But by 2007 he’s proven he was wrong.”

Aguirre did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

But whether Aguirre’s accusations are proven right or wrong, the council members acknowledge that the city attorney’s tactics have impacted their images.

“I would say that I had my Aguirre years and my pre-Aguirre years,” Madaffer said.

But before Aguirre was even elected, the council members were already dogged by the federal investigations hanging over City Hall and the city’s financial troubles. Local politicos said Aguirre’s role only exacerbates a reality that would have existed with or without him. The council members’ political fates could become closely linked to the stench of federal investigations and the drastic cuts to city services that Mayor Jerry Sanders said he will propose for the next fiscal year in order to make up for the financial decisions by those council members and others.

“I think every council member has done a good job for their community, but people will base their judgment on the decisions the City Council has made as well,” Mayor Jerry Sanders said.

“There are some pretty damaging things in the Kroll report,” he added.

When asked if he would ever consider endorsing one of the four council members, Sanders ducked.

“I always look at endorsements on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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