Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles examining the legal careers of the five candidates for San Diego city attorney.
Monday, March 31, 2008 | Before he was a city councilman, before the pension debacle, the La Jolla seals and the Soledad Cross threw him into the public spotlight, Scott Peters was a lieutenant in the Great Trash Wars of the early- and mid-1990s.
As a deputy county counsel, Peters represented the county Board of Supervisors for much of the decade in a thicket of lawsuits over local trash collection, landfill fees and expansion of the county’s landfill sites. In the course of the trash wars, he gained a reputation among those who fought with him and against him as a smart, tenacious lawyer, who set realistic goals and almost always delivered for his client.
That was more than a decade ago. Since leaving the county counsel’s office in 1996, Peters has spent four years in private practice and more than seven years as a sitting city councilman. For most of the last decade, he has been an inactive member of the bar, unable to practice in a legal capacity and not beholden to the rules of ongoing legal education that apply to active members.
And in Peters’ tenure as a councilman, the city has fallen into a financial crisis brought about in part by legal issues controlled — and in some cases exacerbated — by the City Council’s actions. In that time, Peters himself has also alienated some of the grassroots environmental organizations that once championed his political career.
Though Peters hasn’t practiced law for eight years, a look at the years prior to his first election to public office in 2000 reveals that his legal career garnered him plenty of praise and made him a number of allies in the legal community who say they will support his run and that he will make a fine city attorney.
“I would say he’s the best county counsel I’ve ever worked with,” said Bill Worrell, a former head of the county’s Solid Waste Department who currently works in San Luis Obispo and said he hasn’t spoken to Peters in five years.
Peters graduated magna cum laude from Duke University in 1980. He spent a year as an economist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before heading to New York University School of Law, where he received his juris doctor degree in 1984.
While still at law school, Peters took on a $20-an-hour part-time job tutoring students for a tiny start-up company called the Princeton Review. After his graduation from law school, Peters was asked by the company’s founder, John Katzman, if he wanted to become the president of the fledgling company, which has since grown into a massive producer of educational materials that stretches from coast to coast.
“I thought to myself, ‘That was nice,’ but I really want to pursue something much more solid than this start-up company,” Peters said.
Peters’ first job as a lawyer was at the large firm Dorsey and Whitney LLP in Minneapolis. He spent a year as a tax lawyer, a job he said he found “dry” and “extremely academic.” In 1985 he switched to environmental law, a specialty he maintained for the rest of his legal career.
At Dorsey and Whitney, Peters said he worked on a number of significant environmental cases including representing the industrial supplies manufacturer Honeywell in a large toxic cleanup case. “We made sure everything got cleaned up,” he said. “It was great work.”
In Minneapolis, Peters started dating his future wife, Lynn Gorguze. He had first met Gorguze in college and said she looked him up while she was on a business trip in Minneapolis. The two were married in 1986. Two years later, Lynn had an opportunity to move to Rancho Bernardo with her work at a private equity firm, and in 1988 the couple settled in La Jolla.
Peters was hired by legal giant Baker & McKenzie’s San Diego office. Ali Mojdehi, a long-time partner at Baker & McKenzie, said the firm was attracted to Peters’ strong education and his expertise as an environmental lawyer. Mojdehi said he remembers a capable, thoughtful lawyer who stood out from the crowd of young attorneys at the company.
“He had extraordinary writing skills and analytical skills and he could express himself well,” Mojdehi said.
Peters worked on environmental cases and other litigation at Baker & McKenzie. He was a relatively junior lawyer at the firm and as such did not have any management functions, but Mojdehi said other lawyers at the firm admired him.
“In my view, a large part of being city attorney is similar to being a managing partner of a law firm. Well, as a managing partner, one of your responsibilities is to develop a team and inspire people to do their best work and I think Scott has those qualities and you could tell that trait at a very early age,” Mojdehi said.
He continued, “All you need to do is look at how people react to an individual and you can form an opinion as to the effect they have. You can have one person who walks down the hall and people gravitate towards them and are uplifted and you have another person who walks down the hall and people shut their doors.”
In 1991, Peters left his position at Baker & McKenzie and went to work for the County Counsel’s Office. He said he wanted to enter the world of public service and the success of his wife’s company allowed him the freedom to pursue his ambitions as a public servant.
At the time, the cash-strapped county Board of Supervisors was just starting to go to war with local cities over access to and payment for waste management services.
Peters managed a team of six lawyers at the County Counsel’s Office. Lloyd Harman was the county counsel at the time; he also praised Peters’ analytical abilities and said the young lawyer had an excellent rapport with local elected officials.
“He has good judgment. He doesn’t jump to rash conclusions. That was something that existed the whole time he was at the office,” Harman said.
The 1990s were difficult years for the county government’s waste management program. The county had invested in a large trash recycling plant and in the early part of the decade, and it simply wasn’t getting enough trash to pay its bills for the plant. So the county instigated a plan aimed at essentially forcing local cities to take all their trash to the county plant or pay much higher rates for their waste management.
The plan split the county. Some of the smaller cities signed up with the county while others, like Chula Vista and Coronado refused to join the coalition and decided to fight the county in court.
Attorney Dwight Worden represented the coalition of cities that fought the county on the recycling plant issue and on also went up against Peters in another legal fight involving the county’s planned expansion of a landfill site in San Marcos.
Worden said both cases eventually settled in ways that were beneficial to both sides of the fights. Worden said Peters inherited a difficult situation when he joined the County Counsel’s Office, because the county’s policy makers had created a “big mess” that Peters had to help clean up. In solving the problem, Worden said, Peters revealed he was a strong political player and a savvy attorney.
“Scott did a great job, as a lawyer, he did a great job,” Worden said. “He was very honorable to deal with and he was a tough litigator.”
Worden said Peters was able to steer the county, like a good lawyer should, into settling the cases in a way that was realistic. Peters’ best skill was in guiding and convincing the county government of the limitations of their case and their possibility of success if the litigation dragged on.
Peters left the County Counsel’s Office in 1996 and started his own small law firm, Peters & Varco, with Suzanne Varco, an environmental lawyer he had known socially and who had been renting an office next to his. The two attorneys both entered into the partnership with significant caveats, said Varco, who is now a partner at Opper & Varco LLP.
“We both laid our cards on the table. He said he would eventually want to go into public office and I said I was eventually going to get pregnant,” Varco said.
Peters said he split his time at Peters & Varco between the law firm and public service. He became involved with several community organizations, including the Friends of the La Jolla Library and was a board member and vice president of Citizens Coordinate for Century 3, a local nonprofit that focuses on land use issues.
By 1999, Peters had wound down his legal practice and in 2000 he was elected to the first of his two terms in office as a city councilman. While on the City Council, he has had to spar with dozens of complex legal issues, from the Mount Soledad Cross to the infamous pension scandal.
During his time on the City Council, Peters has also alienated some members of the local environmental community. Peters has long held himself out as an ardent environmentalist, but some conservationists disagree, and Peters himself has been found to use eight times as much water at home than the typical San Diego household.
Deborah Knight, president of the Friends of Rose Canyon, a conservation group in University City, said when Peters first ran for office she walked precincts to help promote the young candidate.
But in the years since, Knight said Peters’ support of environmental causes has been sketchy. She said many local conservationists have been shocked by some of his decisions on the City Council and some of the causes he has championed.
“He’s definitely led the council on a number of very bad environmental decisions,” Knight said.
Peters’ experience as a lawyer, his strong analytical mind and his reputation as a strong and tenacious attorney beg the question why Peters made the City Council votes that helped push the city further into its financial meltdown earlier this decade.
On this point, Peters said he has worked hard to fix the downfalls of the pension system since those votes, and, while he said he takes responsibility for his actions, he said bad advice from the city’s attorneys is also partly to blame.
The City Council, Peters included, was also taken to task in a report into the city’s financial mismanagement issued in 2006 by consultants from Kroll Inc.
The report cited Peters as one of the officials who acted negligently in failing to ensure that the city’s financial disclosures to investors were complete and accurate. And the Kroll report said Peters and other officials knowingly kept in place a rate structure for the city’s wastewater services that charged residents excessive rates to the benefit of industrial users, a finding particularly damaging for Peters, who had made his legal career in environmental law and had been involved in high-profile wastewater-related cases.
Peters said part of his job if he wins the city attorney’s race will be working to ensure that the City Council always gets the best advice to base its decisions on. Asked if he has the experience and the legal knowledge to ensure that’s always the case, Peters said he has learned from his mistakes and that his last eight years on the council place him in good stead to make those sorts of judgments.
But there is also the fact that Peters has spent more than seven years as an inactive member of the State Bar of California. State Bar officials said it’s perfectly normal for attorneys to switch their status to inactive when they take on a public service role, but incumbent City Attorney Mike Aguirre has seized on the fact that Peters has not been practicing law for the better part of a decade as evidence that his long-time foe is ill-prepared for the City Attorney’s Office.
Aguirre’s number two, Don McGrath, himself an accomplished lawyer and an alum of Baker & McKenzie in San Diego, said he has no doubt Peters is a fine lawyer. But McGrath questioned whether Peters has the experience and the powers of judgment that he needs to manage an office of more than 160 lawyers.
“I’ve worked with him, he did a good job. He’s very bright and well-educated but that’s not the point, this job is all about making the correct judgments and I’m not sure he’s so strong on that front,” McGrath said.
Peters had his own answer to that.
“I’ll just say that it’s true that I directly manage, you know, 11 people now, but I think the job that I do effects 10,000 people who are city employees and 1.3 million people who live in San Diego,” the city councilman said. “So I just don’t think that, given the responsibility I carry now, running a law office with 100 or 200 lawyers is going to be something that I can’t handle.”