Wednesday, May 23, 2007 | City Attorney Mike Aguirre’s alliance with Mayor Jerry Sanders curdled further Tuesday when Aguirre accused the mayor of striking back against him for criticism over the handling of the Sunroad office building saga.

“We live in a climate of retaliation,” Aguirre said at a press conference. “I have not felt this way since the latter days of the Murphy administration.”

Sunroad Eclipses Alliance

  • The Issue: City Attorney Mike Aguirre said Mayor Jerry Sanders’ refusal to keep 12 lawyers in Aguirre’s office amounted to political payback for embarrassing the mayor in the Sunroad controversy.
  • What It Means: The dispute marks the newest ebb in the two officials’ unlikely alliance, which has suffered spats before, but usually in a conciliatory tone.
  • The Bigger Picture: Likening the Sanders administration to former Mayor Dick Murphy’s, as the city attorney did Tuesday, is the harshest Aguirre has been on the mayor yet.

Representatives from Sanders’ office instead blamed Aguirre’s own “mismanagement” for the cuts. “This is false and ridiculous,” Sanders’ spokesman Fred Sainz said.

Both officials have gone to great lengths to make the unlikely partnership work, despite their differences in political ideologies. Aguirre and Sanders have criticized each other on issues before, such as the mayor’s plan to issue pension bonds, the city’s response to the high-priced Kroll Inc. investigation, and the government’s handling of environmentalists’ lawsuits against development projects.

Those prior disagreements, however, have usually been struck in a polite and conciliatory tone, with both sides chalking up differences of opinion as mere quibbles that would not tear at their ability to cooperate.

But that ended Tuesday, as both sides stepped up the coarseness of their attacks.

“The mayor is on a perilous course, and I see a downward trend,” Aguirre said at a press conference. “He’s facing a credibility crisis in his administration.”

By invoking the name of former Mayor Dick Murphy, Aguirre is likening the current mayor to one of the city attorney’s chief political enemies and a man Sanders has castigated.

Tuesday’s clash comes on the eve of the City Council’s review of the City Attorney’s Office budget, which will take place Wednesday at 2 p.m. at City Hall. The hearing affords Sanders and the council a rare venue to rein in Aguirre, who has flexed his status as an independently elected official to the frustration of some officials.

Aguirre said Sanders’ staff reneged on a promise to allow Aguirre to retain 12 “supplemental positions” in his office. The dozen positions represent lawyers in his office that had not been included in the office’s roster, but were paid for with the excess funds within the City Attorney’s Office. Removing those “supplemental positions” from the budget would hurt the office’s ability to perform legal work for the city, Aguirre said.

Sainz said the cuts result from Aguirre’s failure to correct the supplemental positions last February when the mayor asked department heads, including Aguirre, to eliminate those employees.

The city attorney said he tried to make the correction a few months ago when he discovered some supplemental positions had not been fixed in the prior budget season. The mayor’s budget staff told him the tweaks would have to wait until the current budget season, Aguirre said

He said he was promised those 12 positions would remain at a May 7 meeting when Chief Financial Officer Jay Goldstone said the mayor would accommodate Aguirre.

Goldstone said the city has learned in the interim that it doesn’t have the money to allow Aguirre the leeway he was seeking. The revised budget included new funding for next June’s primary election, a payment to the Chargers football team for complying with a disability law, and the 8 percent pay hike that was recently awarded to police officers.

Additionally, the mayor denied requests by about five other departments, such as development services and police, to include supplemental positions in the 2008 budget, Goldstone said. In general, Sanders has championed layoffs as a way to cut costs and redirect money to deficits in employee retirement costs and infrastructure.

Aguirre argued the cuts amounted to political retribution. He claimed Sanders felt the city attorney embarrassed him in the Sunroad matter. Sanders had defended his staff’s handling of the issue until just last week as Aguirre aggressively attacked the company’s Kearny Mesa office building.

The city attorney is suing Sunroad for constructing a 12-story development that federal and state officials have deemed hazardous to airplanes landing at the nearby Montgomery Field airport.

“Some people would like the building to come down, and some people would like to see me come down,” Aguirre said.

Aguirre said Sanders’ aides and political allies — such as Police Chief Bill Lansdowne, land-use chief Jim Waring and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis — have tried to scuttle his efforts to search the company’s records, investigate the city’s handling of the development, and prosecute a Sunroad executive for allegedly violating the city’s lobbying laws. That “circumstantial evidence” shows that Sanders is involved in covering up the Sunroad matter, he said.

“If you put all the facts together, it adds up to a very substantial case to … obstruct the City Attorney’s Office,” Aguirre said.

The Mayor’s Office disagreed. “This is not about Sunroad,” Goldstone said. “His priority just didn’t win out.”

Sainz said Aguirre was hunting for an excuse when he should view the cuts as the mayor’s effort to end an archaic financial practice.

“It’s a classic deflection tactic to point the finger at everybody but the person that failed to take responsibly to out the supplemental positions,” he said.

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