Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008 | Of the complaints that San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre must parry or absorb in coming months if he is to keep his job, the most damaging is clearly that the man has no motor control of his accusation muscle.
There have scarcely been strings of more than 30 days in which the city attorney hasn’t publicly accused someone of either a crime or a sprawling, yet vague, conspiracy. He has used the public recital of his suspicions to punish someone before they’ve even been charged.
Although his critics list many grievances with the city’s top lawyer, they cannot articulate any of them as well as they do that one.
So it was with a bit of surprise last week that I learned that Aguirre’s most prominent declared rival to his seat might have a similar proclivity toward the unsubstantiated accusation.
Former Poway Mayor Jan Goldsmith, the chosen one of the local Republican Party, got himself all fired up about the surprising news that City Councilman Brian Maienschein, a fellow Republican with much the same base of support, was entering the race.
It wasn’t so much Maienschein’s meek announcement, really, that ignited Goldsmith’s ire. After all, the councilman’s bold decision to enter what is clearly going to be the most intense local political race in most people’s memory came out not with a bang but with a whimper.
It was really Maienschein’s money that so upset Goldsmith.
The city councilman had the good fortune to run for re-election to his post in 2004 against no one in particular. People like giving money to politicians and so, like most incumbents, he was able to raise a ton of money for the non-existent race. That money — $250,000 — sits now waiting for Maienschein’s call.
The city had, in 2004, passed a law that prohibited people from raising money to run for office more than a year before the election for the office they aspired to occupy.
Since Maienschein raised the money in 2004 and the law went into effect the next year, how could he spend it on this election, to be held this year, otherwise known as 2008?
I had the same question and the director of the Ethics Commission responded to my inquiry about it with a statement that the law seemed pretty clear that money from previous campaigns could be transferred into new ones.
That Maienschein could use that money in the race for city attorney infuriated Goldsmith. And with that came the conspiracy theory and the accusation.
“I would request that the Ethics Commission be fair and impartial in addressing this issue. The appearance is that the Commission is stretching to find ways to allow an incumbent Councilman to do something that is unavailable to other candidates,” Goldsmith wrote to Fulhorst and then sent to me.
I had a chance to ask Goldsmith about this.
He was accusing the Ethics Commission of working in collusion with Maienschein to further his political goals. Is this a window into the future? Would he, as city attorney, also defer to the conspiracy theory to make his points?
He said he never wrote that it was an actual conspiracy.
It just looked that way.
“I just said ‘it appears,’” Goldsmith told me. “I don’t believe they had a sinister intent and I don’t believe that’s the case.”
But he also held his ground. “I just think [the Ethics Commission] jumped to a conclusion without looking at it. It would allow Brian Maienschein to do something that other candidates aren’t allowed to do with a law he voted for.”
And then he got to the other angle about this that bothered him. How had this potential wrinkle in the election law not been ironed out before? This offered Goldsmith another justification for his candidacy — he could spot things like this.
The City Council didn’t know what it was doing passing the law it did about the 12-month limit for raising funds.
“Why didn’t anyone, in 2004 when this was passed, not ask the question that this doesn’t provide an exception or clarity about transfers for money from previous campaigns? There were three lawyers on the council and they couldn’t see this?” Goldsmith asked.
He said had he been city attorney, he would have made sure to tie that loose end.
What he didn’t realize is that the issue had in fact been brought up. Not by a lawyer on the council, but by the only person who at times seems to be able to ask questions like one: City Councilwoman Donna Frye.
Former City Attorney Casey Gwinn actually issued an opinion about the matter.
Could the city keep people like Maienschein from transferring money from a previous campaign to a new one?
Nope, Gwinn’s deputy determined.
Sometimes, in this town, things don’t go your way. Sometimes, your rivals have an advantage.
Aguirre has made the mistake of regularly assuming this was due to one of many vague, nefarious conspiracies organizing against him. Anyone vying to replace the city attorney might not want to show any similar tendencies.