Thursday, May 24, 2007 | City Attorney Mike Aguirre continued the uphill defense of his office’s management Wednesday in front of a mostly skeptical City Council that will have final say over his budget for the coming year.

Aguirre went to great lengths to combat Mayor Jerry Sanders’ proposal to cut 17 of the approximately 340 staff positions in his office. The city attorney claimed Sanders’ cuts were politically motivated, spurring a rare public dispute between the two officials that escalated into sharp attacks Tuesday.

Bad Budget Blood

  • The Issue: A day after budget disputes spurred the biggest blow up yet between City Attorney Mike Aguirre and Mayor Jerry Sanders, the city attorney asked the City Council to reverse the mayor’s proposed cuts.
  • What It Means: Aguirre is battling the mayor’s decision to remove 17 so-called “supplemental” positions from his budget — and his turning to a largely hostile council for help. He wants to keep at least 12 of the positions.
  • The Bigger Picture: The budget battle, which seemed likely to be between the council and the city attorney, has now driven a wedge between Aguirre and Sanders.

Now, Aguirre is seeking sympathy from a council that is oftentimes his worst political enemy.

“I have some friends on the council, and I have some adversaries,” Aguirre said. “I think at the end of the day they’ll see the wisdom in allowing our office serve the people of San Diego.”

No vote was taken on the issue; the council must finalize a budget by June 30.

Since Aguirre took office in 2004, council members have grappled with the complexities of Aguirre’s independence and have often born the brunt of his sharpest criticism. In the most remarkable instance, Aguirre filed his legal battle against $900 million in employee pension benefits unilaterally. Aguirre claims the city charter grants him the authority as the government’s chief legal adviser to file such a lawsuit on his own.

But the case, which has been cut down in scope significantly and is awaiting appeal, has proved costly to the city. The lawsuit has required the assistance of several outside lawyers; past defendants that Aguirre unsuccessfully sued recovered their legal fees from the taxpayers; and council members have suggested that the sprawling lawsuit strained the resources within the office.

Before Wednesday’s hearing, the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System noted in its own budget presentation that it anticipates spending $1.5 million next year on Aguirre’s pension lawsuit. Council President Scott Peters criticized the cost, pointing out that the city is paying for the lawsuit both from its city attorney budget and its pension plan assets.

“Why are we using taxpayer money to fight one side and taxpayer money to fight the other side?” Peters said. “It seems to me this should have been resolved.”

Council members have tried to confront Aguirre on the issue of filing lawsuits without their permission before. In March, they approved requiring the city attorney to secure the council’s blessing on lawsuits before city money is spent. Aguirre has shrugged off the limitation, saying the council didn’t have the authority to make such a rule. The budget season affords the council one of the few venues in which it can assert some control over the office.

Despite the very colorful debates that have transpired in the past over the issue, neither Aguirre nor his regular opponents on council seemed willing to engage each other in a showdown over his office’s expenses and operations on Wednesday. Instead, Aguirre spoke with a respectful tone.

And the dispute over Aguirre’s authority was not on display it has been in the past.

Peters and Councilman Ben Hueso supported trimming Aguirre’s budget in memos issued Tuesday, while Councilwoman Donna Frye included a request to fulfill Aguirre’s proposal in her budget memo. The other council members have not weighed in despite the animated debate between Sanders and Aguirre.

“I haven’t made up my mind,” Councilman Tony Young said. “This was a chance for the city attorney to say why he needs these positions, and I’m going to go back and see if that request is possible.”

Aguirre argued that the services his office provides, from domestic violence prosecution to gang investigations to taking legal action against drunk drivers, would suffer if the cuts were allowed to stand.

Several members of the public wrote letters and spoke in his support — many of them invoking Aguirre’s argument that Sanders is pitching the cuts as political payback for the embarrassment the City Attorney’s Office has caused the mayor in the Sunroad office building saga.

Sanders’ “last minute attack on the city attorney’s budget is a transparent effort to prevent further embarrassment for himself and his backers as they continue to raid public assets and dismantle city departments,” said Mission Hills resident Ian Trowbridge.

The army of critics that has stumped against the city attorney at budget meetings past was not on hand to speak Wednesday.

Aguirre did not back down from his criticism of the mayor Wednesday. He advocated for the wholesale cut of the city’s Office of Ethics and Integrity, a year-old creation the mayor has enthusiastically defended as a necessity for a city government subjected to years of federal and local investigations.

He derided the office as “nothing more than a public relations office” that will cost the city $2.4 million next year, if Sanders’ suggestion is approved. That money would more than make up for the proposed $1.6 million cut to the City Attorney’s Office, Aguirre said.

The Mayor’s Office shrugged off the suggestion. “It’s unfortunate Mike sees it that way,” Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz 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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