Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles examining the legal careers of the five candidates for San Diego city attorney. Read the first, about Scott Peters, here.
Monday, April 14, 2008 | Of the five candidates to become San Diego’s next city attorney, Brian Maienschein has spent the least time as a working lawyer.
Maienschein, who was elected to the City Council eight years ago, passed the bar in 1994 after graduating from California Western School of Law. He spent a year as a clerk to a judge, then five years in private practice in San Diego, before entering public service at the age of 30 and changing his status at the bar to inactive.
Thus, Maienschein has largely staked his claim to the City Attorney’s Office on his years on the City Council, a tenure that has had its extremely visible successes and failures. While he has garnered strong support within his district for his reaction to the 2003 and 2007 wildfires, Maienschein has also struggled to escape the cloud of the city’s pension crisis, a problem which his votes as a councilman helped amplify. He has also come under fire for missing too many City Council meetings in the wake of the city’s meltdown.
Those eight years have not dampened the support of some of Maienschein’s former legal colleagues, however, who praised his abilities as a lawyer and said he had all the qualities needed of a successful city attorney. In the absence of a long and celebrated legal career, Maienschein’s time on the City Council represents the bulk of his professional experience, and it is those eight years that will likely ultimately make or break his bond with the city’s voters.
Experts in municipal law said sitting on a city council is a valuable proxy for years spent litigating or engaged in private or public practice as a lawyer. Familiarity with the workings of a local government and a database of knowledge about the city’s residents, interests and concerns helps a city attorney immensely, said Richard Briffault, a professor of law at Columbia Law School in New York.
“Experience is certainly an important and relevant factor, but so is the ability to use that experience in a meaningful way,” Briffault said.
In 2002, two years after his election, Maienschein was one of the majority of the City Council who voted to continue underfunding the city’s pension, a vote that helped push the city into a financial meltdown. A 2006 report by consultants Kroll Inc. into the city’s pension debacle cited Maienschein as one of the officials who acted negligently in failing to ensure that the city’s financial disclosures to investors were complete and accurate; the city as an entity has since been sanctioned by federal authorities for securities fraud.
Maienschein said his votes were a mistake, but said there’s no reason why his experience as a business lawyer should have given him any special knowledge to rely on when he assessed the city’s financial disclosures.
“That was a bond issue,” he said. “I didn’t do bond disclosure, so I wouldn’t say I had any experience in that area. In that way, my background is no different to (Council President and city attorney candidate) Scott Peters.”
But the pension issue has remained a bone of contention in the city attorney’s race, surfacing in every recent public forum. It was also thrust back into public view last week when five former city officials were charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission with securities fraud. Amy Lepine, who’s also running for city attorney, has been particularly vocal in criticizing Maienschein and Peters for their role in the pension scandal. Lepine said the councilmen will be conflicted by their past in carrying out the city’s future legal work.
“I think that is just something that’s going to constrict him and prohibit him from acting fully in the best interests of the city,” Lepine said. “He’s going to want to protect himself from future potential liability.”
And Maienschein has also been criticized over the last few years for missing a significant number of open- and closed- sessions of the City Council. In 2005, he missed all or part of 13 of the 35 closed-session meetings, where the city’s legal issues are often handled. A story last July in San Diego CityBeat questioned Maienschein’s continued absence from City Council meetings.
Katheryn Rhodes, a volunteer on City Attorney Mike Aguirre’s campaign, analyzed each City Council member’s voting record in the 2007 session. Rhodes’ analysis found that Maienschein was absent from 11 sessions of the City Council in 2007 and was absent from at least part of 12 of the council sessions. In all, Maienschein missed at least part of 30 percent of the 2007 council season sessions, more than any other council member, Rhodes’ analysis concluded.
Despite these criticisms, Maienschein has become hugely popular in his district, largely as a result of his work after the 2003 and 2007 wildfires, when he set up one-stop shops for residents and worked to help local people rebuild their homes in the wake of the fires. And before Maienschein entered public service, he impressed a number of the people he worked with in San Diego’s legal community.
Ed Chapin, a storied San Diego lawyer who once worked with Erin Brokovich as well as Maienschein, said he remembers a great deal about the young lawyer who first entered the office of what was then Chapin, Fleming & Winet. Though he said his firm then had more than 30 attorneys, Chapin remembers Maienschein as a “fine lawyer.”
Though Maienschein came to the firm with only a year’s experience as a lawyer, Chapin said he put the young lawyer through his paces.
“I found the deepest water I could find for him and hurled him out into it and told him to swim,” Chapin said. “He did fine.”
Chapin said in the four years Maienschein spent at his firm he oversaw a small team of attorneys who worked primarily on business litigation. Maienschein was never a trial lawyer himself, Chapin said, but he was entrusted with preparing some significant cases for senior partners at the firm.
“I wouldn’t call him a legal lightweight at all,” Chapin said. “He’s a gentleman, he’s a consummate professional and he has integrity.”
Maria Roberts, who worked alongside Maienschein during his years at Chapin, Fleming & Winet, was even more effusive in her praise of her former colleague.
“He was really wonderful, honestly. One of the things about Brian is that he’s smart and efficient, but he’s got a great personality. He’s very disarming and is a consensus builder,” Roberts said.
Roberts couldn’t remember any significant cases Maienschein had worked on at the firm. She said though he was a relatively junior attorney, Maienschein was given an unusual amount of responsibility and oversaw a small group of trial attorneys.
While working in private practice in the late 1990s, Maienschein also volunteered his time in another legal capacity: He was one of the first volunteers at San Diego Teen Court in Poway and Rancho Bernardo, a program that provided alternative courtrooms for first-time teen offenders, where local teens serve as attorneys and jurors and are presided upon by an attorney who acts as a judge.
More than a decade after he first volunteered on the program, Maienschein said he’s still an active and avid supporter of the program, which has since expanded all over the city.
“I really love working with young people, it’s really fun for me and that program had an incredibly low re-offense rate, about 10 percent instead of 60 percent,” Maienschein said.
Clint Carney was a young volunteer when Maienschein first helped out at the Teen Court. Like Maienschein, Carney is still involved with the program, and he said Maienschein’s support of the court during his time on the City Council has been invaluable for the continuation and expansion of the organization.
Carney said Maienschein committed a lot of time to the Teen Court program and clearly enjoyed volunteering and helping young people. He said the city councilman is still involved and sat as the judge of a case earlier this month.
“He was a great guy to work with, he was really personable and down to earth and a lot of fun to work with,” Carney said.
For his part, Maienschein said his legal experience is just one facet of the skills he brings as a city attorney candidate. He’s done the legal work, he said, and he’s worked on the council, and he’s proved that he can build a strong team around him and can manage an office efficiently.
“I didn’t have any experience at all in responding to a fire,” he said. “But I showed what I was capable of with zero years of experience. I showed my leadership in a crisis and I got our community rebuilt.”