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Friday, March 21, 2008 | For the last couple of years, the San Diego Chargers have been pointing the finger at San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre for scuppering a deal that could have kept the team in Mission Valley for the foreseeable future.
The story out of the Chargers camp has played out something like this: Aguirre’s rapacious appetite for litigation scared off development partners who might otherwise have teamed up with the Chargers to build a new stadium and multi-use development on the Qualcomm Stadium site.
Whether developers were wary of Aguirre or of the county’s troubled real estate market — the Qualcomm plan relied on the team building and selling 6,000 condos in Mission Valley as the market was beginning to show weakness — is open to debate, but as Aguirre fights a reelection battle, his opponents in the city attorney’s race are hoping to capitalize on the claim that he’s a spoiler when it comes to the Bolts. As such, a number of Aguirre’s foes are clamoring to make the impression that they are the candidate who can bring the Chargers back to the negotiating table.
The team’s relocation efforts are currently focused on Chula Vista. But, just because the team could be moving out of the city of San Diego doesn’t mean the next city attorney will be clear of stadium issues. That’s because the team could still look to this city to provide some sort of “sweetener” that would help a Chula Vista deal pencil out, said Mark Fabiani, the team’s point man on stadium issues.
The city attorney would, by necessity, play a vital role in negotiating, implementing and defending such an agreement on behalf of the city. As such, how the next city attorney deals with the Chargers could boil down to whether the winner of this year’s election sees his or her role as an advisory one, working in concert with the policy views of the City Council, or as a watchdog for the people of San Diego, able to launch litigation unilaterally and not be beholden to anyone but the city’s residents as a whole.
Falling in the consensus-builder camp: Council President Scott Peters, Judge Jan Goldsmith and Councilman Brian Maienschein. And in the watchdog role: City Attorney Mike Aguirre and attorney Amy Lepine.
Mark Fabiani, the Chargers’ point man on stadium relocation issues, said the team won’t comment specifically on which of the candidates for city attorney it favors. The team is just hoping for an “anyone-but-Aguirre” result, Fabiani said.
“We’ve decided that we can control what we can control. Other than that, we’ll just let the chips fall where they may,” Fabiani said.
There are a number of ways San Diego could be asked to help the Chargers stay in the county, Fabiani said. The city could be asked to negotiate a land subsidy to the team, gifting the Chargers a plot of city-owned land for the development that would be used to help finance a new stadium in a city like Chula Vista. The project, Fabiani estimated, could cost as much as $1.2 billion.
Or, the city could negotiate a new deal with the Chargers for the rental of their training facility in Murphy Canyon, Fabiani said.
“There’s all sorts of ways the city of San Diego could help us out,” Fabiani said.
Les Girard, a former deputy city attorney who was involved with the negotiation and implementation of the city’s Petco Park deal, said the City Attorney’s Office would be deeply involved with the formation of such a deal.
The city attorney would represent the city in negotiations with the Chargers, would prepare the legislative documents needed to facilitate any deal and would defend the city against any lawsuits brought against it by opponents of the plan, Girard said.
Having a city attorney who is willing to work with the City Council and the Chargers to pencil out a deal is therefore crucial to the Chargers’ ongoing relocation efforts, Fabiani said. That’s what the city’s been missing out on for the last four years, he argued, because Aguirre isn’t willing to negotiate and has been “dragging his feet” on every Chargers-related issue that comes before the City Council.
As an example, Fabiani blamed Aguirre for ruining Mayor Jerry Sanders and County Supervisor Ron Roberts’ proposal for a joint powers authority. After Roberts and Sanders announced the creation of the group, which would have studied how to keep the team in the county, Fabiani said, Aguirre stymied the plan by insisting on being the authority’s attorney and refusing to draft the body’s creation if he wasn’t intimately involved. “Even a simple procedural step like that just went nowhere,” Fabiani said.
In turn, Aguirre said that the city has been lumbered in the past with one-sided deals with the Chargers. Past contracts provisions, such as the Chargers ticket guarantee, which is now widely derided as being in favor of the Chargers at the expense of taxpayers, are the result of former city attorneys failing to do their duty by the city’s residents, he said. That’s something Aguirre said he’s not willing to see happen again.
“It’s never good to negotiate with a gun to your head,” Aguirre said. “The city of San Diego needs to have the same negotiations with the Chargers as any player does.”
Because the City Attorney’s Office would be so entrenched in drawing up an agreement between the city and the Chargers, the team’s concern about who they will have to negotiate with, and how that candidate views the city attorney’s role, is a valid one, Girard said.
“The success or failure of the project may depend on which role the city attorney decides is appropriate,” Girard said.
The city attorney candidates can essentially be grouped into two schools in that respect: Peters, Maienschein and Goldsmith have all made it clear that they disagree with Aguirre’s interpretation of the role of the city attorney. Each candidate has said he sees the city attorney’s job as providing measured, non-political legal advice to the City Council.
In the other camp, Aguirre and Lepine have both campaigned that the role of San Diego’s elected city attorney is to represent the people of the city as a whole, effectively meaning that the city attorney has to give his or her seal of approval to actions taken by the City Council and has the power to sue on behalf of the city without the prior approval of the City Council.
Goldsmith has probably been the most vocal candidate in opposition to Aguirre’s stance. Via his mantra of “the law, the whole law and nothing but the law,” Goldsmith has made it clear that if he was elected he would work to facilitate whatever agreement with the Chargers the city’s elected policymakers wanted to pursue, as long as it was legal. He said he sees the role of the city attorney in this respect as simply checking the legality of whatever Chargers-related plan is proposed.
“If I see a legal concern with an agreement, I’ll put the kybosh on it,” Goldsmith said. “But if my concerns are that I think there are other priorities that are more important for the city, well, that’s not my role.”
Maienschein said he doesn’t know what the best options are for the Chargers, but that he has shown in his seven-plus years on the City Council that he can calmly and sensibly work with different parties to broker agreements that are in each party’s best interests.
“What I would bring to the table as the city attorney is somebody who would be able to sit down, come up with what the best deal possible is, and then let the voters decide if that’s something they want to pursue,” Maienschein said.
Peters echoed the consensus-building role of the city attorney. He added that if he is elected and is asked to help negotiate a subsidy agreement with the Chargers, he would focus on ensuring that any agreement that went before voters was in the best interests of the taxpayer.
Peters said his experience helping the city put together the Petco Park deal will be invaluable if he gets the chance to sit down with the Chargers as the city attorney. Peters worked as a volunteer on the 1998 campaign for the ballpark and said his support as a councilman helped complete the deal, which has since proved highly successful for the city.
“I don’t know if we could do something like that with the Chargers,” Peters said. “But we want a city attorney who’s part of a team that can come up with a plan that makes sense for the city and is protective of taxpayers.”
Aguirre’s interpretation of the role of the city attorney — as an extra layer of defense for the public against powerful private interests — necessarily adds an element of the unknown to the negotiation process the Chargers must complete in order to win what could be a crucial subsidy from San Diego for their stadium dreams.
For her part, Lepine seems to be just as keen to continue the “watchdog” role the City Attorney’s Office has grown into in the last four years.
Asked about whether she would support a “sweetener” for the Chargers in the form of a land subsidy if the team was to move to Mission Valley, Lepine avoided any niceties about how she would support the wishes of the council or how she would protect the taxpayers to ensure they got the best deal.
Instead, in obvious homage to her interpretation of the city attorney’s role, Lepine simply said: “No. When they were building it here I had that problem. If it’s such a great deal, then they can put their own money into it.”