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Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008 | In 2006, investigators asked City Council President Scott Peters about a memorandum. It was a document that was key to understanding how officials made one of the most controversial decisions about the city of San Diego’s pension system a couple of years ago.

The memo discussed a special retirement benefit some officials wanted to give to firefighter union president Ron Saathoff. Those maneuverings later raised the suspicions of the U.S. attorney, who filed charges against Saathoff and several other officials involved. A trial on the counts has been delayed.

Investigators hired by the city to look into the matter asked Peters if he knew what city staff was talking about when they sent the memo to him. What did he think at the time? His answer was that “he tended to give memoranda prepared for closed session meetings (such as this one) less attention than others because he received them on Fridays at which time he was usually out of the office seeing constituents or playing golf.”

This all came from a summary of the interview of Peters that Kroll Inc. conducted in May 2006.

It’s pretty clear that little juicy nuggets like this one are going morph themselves into some mailers and commercials and all types of campaign rhetoric against Peters if (actually when) the City Council president decides to run for city attorney.

Why would he do it? Why would Scott Peters run in what is clearly going to be the most contentious local political contest in recent memory? His experience as a corporate, environmental and municipal attorney certainly would earn him a post in some law firm somewhere where he could play golf without guys like me having any reason to care?

I’d love to ask Peters that, but I’m not the only whose call he isn’t taking this week. He’s spending time with his family — something he won’t be able to do much of now if he’s serious about trying to win this seat.

Even if he were to talk to reporters he’d just say something like this: “I feel like the city attorney has failed to do his job and that I can make a difference.”

There are other reasons of course. And while I’m making things up that he might say, I’m going to try to piece together another motivation.

Peters wants to run for city attorney because he wants to win. I know, great insight, right?

But I don’t mean that he wants to win the election. Sure, he may look forward to four-to-eight more years of those mind-numbing City Council meetings. Sure, he may be moved by the calls from labor and others anxious for a prominent Democrat to challenge incumbent Mike Aguirre. Sure he thinks he can do a good job, put a troubled office back on the right track, perhaps save his legacy and move on to bigger and better things like that.

All that is good but Peters wants to run because he wants to win a bigger battle. For more than three years, Peters has been arguing with Aguirre. Day in and day out, the two have sparred. What Peters wants is to win that argument once and for all.

After the 2005 mayoral election, Peters would make a similar point from time to time. He’d pick on Pat Shea, a lawyer who had vied for mayor with a platform to lead the city government through bankruptcy. Peters would point out whatever paltry total of votes Shea won and deduce that the vote reflected the proportional appetite for the idea of bankruptcy.

This corresponded to Peters’ own view of the concept. To him, voters had concurred with him that the city hadn’t really slipped to a point where bankruptcy was attractive.

To Peters, voters have the power not just to put people into office, but to validate (or spike) the ideas the candidates proffer.

Peters has always believed that out in San Diego Land a silent majority of people existed who quietly watched the city descend into an unnecessary controversy. He has always believed that all of the scandal of 2002 and beyond was largely an artificial bubble of hysteria.

Look through that interview the investigators conducted with Peters and you’ll see him refer to pension whistleblower Diann Shipione, Shea’s wife, as bitter, unstable and ill-motivated. The frenzy she whipped up got out of hand in Peters’ mind. Kroll and countless others later concluded that Shipione’s warnings were a “rare and abrupt departure” from the culture of corruption of financial management.

Peters dismissed that report.

And the Securities and Exchange Commission conclusions? The U.S. attorney investigations? Also unfortunate validations of the hysteria, in Peters’ opinion.

Unable to admit to mistake or misjudgment, Peters has left the scandal to plague his legacy.

The obligations to the city’s pension system continue to weigh on the city in ways that city and pension officials used to say they never would. Luckily for Peters, though, the civic discussion largely moved on over the last two years.

At the same time, as if struggling to grasp onto the glory of past scandal, Aguirre has floundered in that vacuum. He became reckless. His definition of his job — that he represents the people not the city — took on so many strange implications that people like Peters began to make sense. As Aguirre devolved, Peters tried to become a leader.

Now, with the confidence a couple of years like that can build, Peters believes he’s in a position to win the election.

With it, he’d win the argument — win the debate.

And like the idea of bankruptcy, he sees a win at the polls confirming that all of ideas Aguirre trumpeted were wrong and all of his were right.

That must sound better than all of the Friday afternoon golf games he can dream of.

Please contact Scott Lewis (scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org) directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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