Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2007 | Not long ago, San Diego’s City Hall was paralyzed.

A dangerous harmony between city officials had produced a secretive string of bad decisions. Outside regulators finally had to come in and call them to the carpet, banishing the city from its once laudable post inside the room of respectable municipal agencies.

Sure, the visible effects have been minimal. This isn’t a developing nation where trash piles up on the roads. But an aging water and sewer system is crumbling underneath us.

Liabilities like these loom large over the city’s head.

Now, City Hall has reached a new depth in its civic coma. But this was hardly the result of too much insider harmony. No, city officials have somehow found a way to make things worse — engaging in such a politically brutal internecine battle that city employees have become wise to one simple rule of survival: Don’t stick your head out of the fox hole, or you’ll get shot.

We may all have anticipated the great battle between Mayor Jerry Sanders and City Attorney Mike Aguirre, but that doesn’t mean we understood just how much collateral damage it would cause.

There are great political conflicts and rivalries all across this country. Cities have defined themselves because of some of these — and some have defined themselves well.

This conflict, however, isn’t of the traditional variety. It is not defined by two competing personalities seeking to assert their visions and the interests of their constituencies. It is not a power struggle necessarily.

The truth is, it has become a fight to the political death. Both parties have not so subtly conveyed that they seek nothing less than to end the others’ political career. The battles are waged daily in the press — damning information leaks out painting one or the other in a negative light.

In an interview this week, Fred Sainz, the mayor’s spokesman and a key figure in this battle, said it was “flawed logic” to assume that the mayor and city attorney could come to some sort of mediation — that they could learn to battle productively.

Asked if the city could regain any semblance of a functioning enterprise, Sainz did not hesitate.

“With Mike (Aguirre) in office, it will not be possible,” he said.

On the flip side — as he often is with his words, and not his actions — Aguirre was conciliatory and open minded. He expressed a desire and commitment to restrain from his marathon of press statements and accusations. He said he feared that voters would react negatively to him and the mayor if the conflict continued. He was ready to move on.

That’s very nice but the city attorney has time and time again been absurdly intolerant of the notion that a good and sincere person might have a view different from his own. He has sought, unequivocally, to destroy the mayor.

It is an ugly world indeed that would make San Diegans choose between Mike Aguirre and Fred Sainz in the battle for the city’s soul.

Yet they’ve left us with no other choice. And look at what the conflict has produced: Mission Hills residents interested in building cellars underneath their homes have found themselves obligated by a paranoid mayor to apply to the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to ensure they don’t build flight hazards.

The city attorney has left City Hall in such a state of fear that department heads have simply ceased asking for advice from the people that are supposed to serve as the city’s lawyers. One day the city attorney is the representative of the city as an organization, the next day, he is a hostile opposing counsel flashing a badge and seizing documents.

The debate of the day becomes who or what requested a police escort. In the meantime, the leadership and reform we were promised is absent, and the city’s real problems remain unsolved.

The Mayor’s Office has let itself be amazingly awed by the city attorney’s criticism and the political effects of everything City Hall bureaucrats produce. So the mayor has become determined, therefore, to control the political appearance of those products.

Both of them inspire employees to not produce anything.

We, San Diegans, are not going to choose between Fred Sainz and Mike Aguirre. We’re just not. They are offering us little more than a mildly entertaining brawl and mutually assured destruction.

They either change now or wait to cement their legacies along with the other so-called leaders that left us a paralyzed city with little promise of recovery.

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