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Wednesday, March 12, 2008 | In a hotel ballroom packed with dark-suited business leaders, politicians, VIPs, media hacks, television cameras and a smattering of City Hall gadflies, the five contenders to become San Diego’s next city attorney faced off against each other Tuesday in the first debate in the race for Mike Aguirre’s seat.

In many ways the seating of the candidates and their body language reflected the tone of the debate, which was organized by the Lincoln Club of San Diego County, a conservative business association.

Councilmen Scott Peters and Brian Maienschein sat comfortably next to each other at one end of the podium, exchanging friendly glances and raised eyebrows throughout the event. Each happily piggybacked on the other’s points and arguments, invariably beginning each remark with “Well, I agree with what Scott said,” or, “Brian’s exactly right.”

In the middle of the podium, Aguirre sat next to his former employee, Amy Lepine. The two looked far less comfortable than Peters and Maienschein did with one another. Lepine, who brought a lawsuit last year against Aguirre alleging wrongful termination and sexual harassment, among other things, stared straight ahead throughout the debate and pointedly avoided interacting with Aguirre. At one point, as she answered a question and Aguirre tried to interject, Lepine waved her hand and said testily, “No! This is my time.”

And at the far right of the podium sat the Republican Party’s chosen one: Judge Jan Goldsmith, who throughout the debate sought to distance himself from what he continually referred to as the “sandbox of politics.” Left without a partner to josh or spar with, Goldsmith instead took to his feet with each statement, addressing the crowd like an old friend.

It was a tactic that seemed to work well for Goldsmith, no doubt thanks in large part to the Republican makeup of the Lincoln Club. Goldsmith eked easy laughs and rapturous applause from the party faithful by poking fun at the bickering between the three politicians seated on the stage with him.

That same crowd saved its only scoffing of the afternoon debate for Aguirre, who was booed for insinuating that Peters and Maienschein had participated in securities fraud while on the City Council. The incumbent Democrat received jeers when he said he wasn’t hostile towards the Chargers football team and when he accused Goldsmith of misusing his role as a judge to make political attacks on him.

But in the playing field between scorn for Aguirre and admiration for Goldsmith there was plenty of room for some intelligent and well-mannered debate on some of the important issues of the race.

The city’s pension crisis took the lion’s share of that debating time. In pointed interrogation from moderator and radio talk show host Roger Hedgecock, and in probing questions from the audience, each candidate was asked to lay out his or her strategy for fixing the city’s pension crisis.

Aguirre pleaded for help from the voters to let him finish the litigation he has started in the last four years. Maienschein and Peters asked voters to look at their record in creating new safeguards for the pension system and City Hall. Lepine said the city needs a new, elected auditor so that no one partisan expert can assess the strength of the system. Goldsmith said he expects the city will have to negotiate with municipal labor unions and knows some “tough action” is needed to fix the problem.

The city already is negotiating with all five City Hall labor unions at the moment.

Goldsmith and Lepine, neither of whom is within City Hall’s power structure, were both on safe ground throughout much of the pension discussion.

In contrast, a group of consultants hired by the city to investigate the pension scandal concluded that Peters and Maienschein acted negligently by failing to ensure that the city’s financial disclosures were complete and accurate. The Securities and Exchange Commission eventually sanctioned the city in a securities fraud settlement.

Hedgecock grilled the two councilmen on their role in the pension scandal, pointing to the fact that the city now has to pump more money into the pension system rather than maintaining basic city services.

“Our potholes aren’t being fixed,” Hedgecock said. “I think the average person would say ‘Haven’t we just shifted a whole bunch of money away from public services to the public employee unions?’”

In response, Peters said in the last few years the city has acted like the victim of a heart attack, changing its ways to become healthier in the future. He said during his tenure the City Council has implemented new safeguards to protect the city, like stopping the under-funding of the pension and changing the composition of the pension board.

“The underfunding was from the 90’s,” Peters said. “This is the City Council that stopped it.”

The direct underfunding of the pension system did indeed begin in 1996, but was compounded in 2002 when Peters and Maienschein voted to approve a similar plan. Since that vote, and the scandal that ensued, the city has settled a lawsuit and made other changes that largely scrapped the old financing plan.

And Aguirre has attracted attention from skeptics who say he has bungled the city’s response to the pension crisis. Aguirre’s lawsuits seeking to roll back pension benefits have been unsuccessful since he took office in 2004 and he has been accused of filing costly, fruitless lawsuits that have won little back for the city’s residents.

But rather than feasting on these spoils, Goldsmith — and, to a lesser extent, Lepine — seemed to sit back and let the tag-team duo of Peters and Maienschein attack Aguirre over the mind-boggling, and often mind-numbing, economics of the pension issue.

On other matters, Goldsmith was positively congenial towards Aguirre. He graciously came to the defense of Aguirre when the crowd sneered at the incumbent’s suggestion that he was not hostile to the Chargers’ continued presence in San Diego. Aguirre replied, defiantly, through the sting of the crowd:

“I’m hostile to bad ideas about the Chargers that result in ticket guarantees and no security of them staying here and one-sided agreements and agreements where the city has to pay $173 million with no certainty that they’d be here.”

“If you’re not paying attention to the details to see that these agreements with professional football teams are very, very complicated,” he added.

Goldsmith, up next to respond to the question, which had come from the crowd, stepped forward and said he agrees with Aguirre that the issue is a complex one and needs to be solved with continued, detailed discussion.

Peters was quick to say he has talked directly with the Chargers’ top brass and claimed the team is not willing to come to the negotiating table while Aguirre is still the city attorney. That point was quickly echoed by Maienschein.

“I think it’s a real shame, in all this, that talking is not going on because the other side feels there’s absolutely no point in talking with the city because of the city attorney,” Maienschein said.

The last question of the debate went to Herb Klein, a former editor of the San Diego Union and a former spokesman for Richard Nixon. Klein asked Aguirre if he has ever regretted calling so many people corrupt. Aguirre responded that San Diego has a “corruption problem,” and that corruption problem has led to numerous issues with the city’s infrastructure, from fighting fires to paving roads.

Goldsmith’s response to that line of reasoning drew the loudest applause of the afternoon.

“The city attorney is supposed to be the adult in the room,” he said. “If you really feel that somebody is corrupt, don’t have a press conference, don’t call them names. You can watch as they’re being hauled away in handcuffs and sentenced. Don’t call them corrupt and try to ruin reputations using your office.”

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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