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Tuesday, May 8, 2007 | The San Diego City Council began inspecting the budget for City Attorney Mike Aguirre on Monday, hearing a plea from Aguirre to add more staff members as well as the overwhelming support residents in attendance showed for the controversial city attorney.

But it appears the council will be more skeptical than those in attendance when deliberations over Aguirre’s budget resume later this month, as several officials have bristled at the way the office delivers legal advice or acts on behalf of the city without the council’s permission.

Spending Time Together

  • The Issue: City Attorney Mike Aguirre is asking the City Council to fund some new positions in his office in the coming year, despite the hundreds of layoffs that are slated in other city departments.
  • What It Means: The council, which is often at odds with Aguirre over the way he delivers legal advice and unilaterally files lawsuits, has hinted that those disagreements could become subejct to the ongoing budget discussions.
  • The Bigger Picture: The safeguards that have been pitched by council members would drastically change the way legal work gets done in the city. Aguirre will likely try to fight the changes.

Budget hearings afford the City Council one of its only opportunities to harness Aguirre, who has aggressively asserted that his elected status allows his office complete independence from the council. Because city bylaws require the council to have final authority over the annual budget, Aguirre must depend on the council to continue approving his funding requests — which it has during his first two years in office.

“The reason the City Attorney’s Office has been able to advance since 2004 is because the council, despite the conflicts we have had, has supported our budget,” Aguirre said.

Aguirre is asking to add 25 staff positions to his office for the coming 2008 year, when other city departments will likely be absorbing the hundreds of layoffs that Mayor Jerry Sanders is proposing. The city attorney claims that 17 of those additions are due to an accounting problem, one that was eliminated last year for the other parts of the municipal government.

While only one council member, Ben Hueso, was able to fit his questions into a two-hour hearing that was dominated by the testimony of residents, council members have repeatedly sought to rein in Aguirre and are expected to look at ways to do so again this budget season.

For more than two years, council members have grappled with the difficulties posed by Aguirre’s independence. In the most remarkable instance, Aguirre’s landmark legal attack against $900 million of employee pension benefits was at first filed unilaterally by the city attorney, although the council reluctantly endorsed it a month later. The case has proved costly to the city: it has required the assistance of several outside lawyers; past defendants that Aguirre sued unsuccessfully recovered their legal fees at taxpayer expense; and council members have suggested that the sprawling lawsuit strained the resources within the office.

“Overall, we think we need much better coordination … on litigation issues and their related costs,” said Andrea Tevlin, the council’s independent budget analyst.

Aguirre claims the City Charter grants him the authority as the government’s chief legal adviser to file such a lawsuit on his own.

Council members have tried to confront Aguirre on the issue before. On March 26, the council approved a requirement that the city attorney secure the council’s blessing on a lawsuit before any city money is spent pursuing the case. Aguirre said the council didn’t have the authority to pass the legislation, and he likened it to an illegal sneak attack because the rule was introduced with vague notice to the public in the waning hours of a council meeting.

In an interview Monday, Council President Peters said he will ask Aguirre for suggestions on how to balance the council’s responsibility to oversee the expenditure of public money with the city attorney’s independence. “I would like to know what Mike proposes to make sure that he’s not going over his budget,” he said.

Aguirre did not respond to calls placed to his office as of press time.

Several members of the public rallied for Aguirre at the hearing Monday, mostly for his office’s performance in criminal matters. About two dozen speakers showed up to praise such programs as the Beach Area Community Court, the Drug Abatement Response Team and the enforcement of misdemeanor nuisance crimes.

San Ysidro Border Transportation Council President Richard Gomez said law enforcement officials have had a good track record of catching unlicensed van or bus operators carrying individuals who cross over the border out of the county, a process known as “wildcatting.” But the offenders had never been consistently charged in the courts until Aguirre took office, he said.

“Without prosecution, everything done was in vain,” Gomez said.

The city attorney’s council critics have also called for more punctual legal advice. Aides at City Hall are familiar with the “Friday surprise,” when a late-breaking opinion is received just before the weekend on an issue that is scheduled for next week’s meetings.

Peters said he has not ruled out the idea of allowing the council to hire its own legal counsel, a decision the Los Angeles City Council made last October after complaining that its elected city attorney wasn’t performing the legal work the council requested. Aguirre has chided the idea, arguing that the law permits only him to provide legal advice for all city departments.

Peters said he wants the city attorney to start providing the council with a gauge of his office’s performance, similar to one he compiled with when he worked at the County of San Diego’s legal department.

The City Attorney’s Office is also requesting an $831,735 increase for supplies and other non-personnel costs. Larry Tomanek, the deputy director for the office, said spending in that area has been unusually low since former City Attorney Casey Gwinn cut that budget by 42 percent for the 2004 fiscal year.

Earlier in the year, Aguirre had accused the City Council of stealing his supplies at the same time he was requesting more money. Councilman Ben Hueso wanted Aguirre to clear up the record, saying — in what appeared a joking tone — that he grilled his aides as to whether they were accomplices to the alleged theft.

“Did you really believe we stole your office supplies?” Hueso asked.

Aguirre, with a sheepish grin, replied, “I will acknowledge that you did not steal our office supplies.”

The hearing over the city attorney’s budget will resume either May 16 or May 23, according to Peters. The entire city budget must be finalized by June 30.

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

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