Thursday, June 21, 2007 | Two of San Diego’s highest crime areas will lose the valued services of neighborhood prosecutors next month as City Attorney Mike Aguirre trims his staff.
The neighborhood prosecutors are tasked with tackling quality of life crimes at a local level. Essentially, they work as a local arm of the City Attorney’s Office, liaising directly with community groups, local business leaders and police officers to tackle issues like graffiti, drug abuse and city code violations.
Aguirre said the job losses were spelled out to the City Council when it voted on his budget earlier this month. But in a press conference Wednesday morning, Councilman Ben Hueso accused Aguirre of political retaliation for the council-imposed limits on his budget and called Aguirre’s choice of personnel to cut “political leveraging.” Aguirre fired back at Hueso, saying the councilman knew what was coming and was trying to find someone other than himself to blame.
Meanwhile, representatives of community groups in the two neighborhoods losing prosecutors said they are being caught in the middle of a political game. They said the prosecutors provide an essential service to the community and lamented the internecine wrangling at City Hall.
“We’re taking steps backwards,” said Richard Gomez, a member of the San Ysidro Border Transportation Council, a group that works regularly with one of the neighborhood prosecutors being dropped. “I think that position is one of the greatest things that they’ve accomplished.”
The loss of prosecutors has been the latest focal point of an ongoing feud between Hueso and Aguirre. That quarrel was elevated in March when the councilman proposed barring Aguirre from filing lawsuits on the city’s behalf without the council’s consent.
More recently, Hueso and five other council members voted June 11 to cut 14 of the 17 staff members in the City Attorney’s Office that were identified as “supplemental positions.” Those positions represent lawyers in his office that had not been included in the office’s roster, but were paid for with excess funds within the City Attorney’s Office.
Mayor Jerry Sanders recommended that only the three of the 17 positions — those relating to the city’s financial disclosures — be allowed to remain because Aguirre failed to phase out the archaic budgeting practice last year when other departments did. Aguirre identified neighborhood prosecutors in City Council District 4 and District 8 as part of the supplemental positions being cut.
Aguirre relayed news of the cuts to key community leaders in District 8, which Hueso represents, but not District 4.
“It is with much regret, that I write to inform you that the City Attorney’s Office must discontinue the work of your neighborhood prosecutor, Gabriela Brennan, in Council District 8 in South San Diego,” the June 12 letter from Assistant City Attorney Chris Morris stated.
The letter also named all the council members — including Hueso — who voted for the cuts.
Deputy City Attorney Margaret Jacobo said the letter was sent to community groups that work with her office regularly. But Hueso’s office contends the letter was sent to influential groups in order to hurt him politically.
“It was target marketing, sent to select leaders and constituents in District 8,” Hueso spokeswoman Elizabeth Armendariz said. “They are more organized than sending it to a regular person in the public. They have more of a voice to cause a ruckus in the city.”
Councilman Tony Young, who represents District 4, voted against the cuts to Aguirre’s budget. His district will be losing a prosecutor, but letters notifying his constituents of the cutback were not sent.
Young said he knew the cuts were coming down the pipeline before he voted on the city attorney’s budget. He said Aguirre was clear about which positions would be cut if the budget restrictions were imposed. Unfortunately, he said, the positions Aguirre dropped provide a vital community service.
“This is not a community friendly budget,” Young said. “A lot of services are being cut and I’ve said that all along.”
Rachael Ortiz, executive director of Barrio Station, a community organization in the Barrio Logan neighborhood, said she works with her local neighborhood prosecutor frequently. Ortiz said neighborhood prosecutors are essential in aiding community groups in their fight against businesses that fail to comply with city code. Code compliance failures might include anything from use of inappropriate signage to operating a business out of a residence.
Without a neighborhood prosecutor as an ally, Ortiz said, many community groups have no recourse against their foes.
“You can’t go to the police because they don’t do code enforcement,” she said. “You can spin your wheels at the city and county environmental services department and they’ll come in and they’ll write a report, but it stays shelved — there’s no legal enforcement.”
Barrio Logan’s neighborhood prosecutor will survive this round of cuts, and Aguirre said he’s hoping the council will resurrect budget negotiations for the two neighborhood prosecutors who, as things stand, will be cut on July 1.
But Hueso argued that it was Aguirre who decided which lawyers to layoff.
“It’s a very simple formula: He wanted more positions, he didn’t get them, so he retaliated by cutting very, very important core services to our district,” Hueso said. “That’s unfair and it’s not what the public deserves.”
Aguirre said shifting the attorneys around the roster was not an option because the council decided to cut the lawyers pegged as supplemental positions in budgets past.
“While I am very close to the eighth district, when I make decisions for the City Attorney’s Office, I can’t determine anything with anything but citywide eyes,” said Aguirre, who has run for public office in District 8.
The police department, which works alongside neighborhood prosecutors, would not provide officers to comment on the cuts.