Friday, Feb. 13, 2009 | Since Jan Goldsmith took office in December, all eyes have been on the new city attorney to see how he will differ from his controversial predecessor, Mike Aguirre.

Goldsmith is a former state legislator, Poway mayor and most recently, a Superior Court judge. Since Goldsmith took over, he has emphasized changes he has made to the office.

For instance, he noted that he instituted ethics training soon after taking office and restructured the office through extensive interviews of all the lawyers. He also said he has recruited experienced attorneys and delegated work to them, improving service by not creating a backlog at the top.

Goldsmith has also stirred his own controversy, from his suit against the Chargers in a rent dispute to a recent opinion on the legality of auto allowances. He sat down with us to discuss his nascent term.

You recently put out an opinion that the council members can collect an auto allowance as long as they fill out expense reports and that the council would have to adopt a policy on reasonableness. During the campaign you said you agreed with the city attorney of Lynwood who said that those auto allowances weren’t allowed under state law —

Actually that’s not true. Read what I wrote. Do you have a copy there? I’ll read it to you. (He reads from a printout of a statement he made to the Union-Tribune in April.) “I agree with the city attorney of Lynwood’s analysis that a policy of paying a set amount of money monthly in advance without receiving expense reports and receipts for the actual expenses incurred violates Government Code section 53232.3.”

That doesn’t say that I believe anything about that a flat allowance is required. It says that you cannot have an allowance without the expense disclosure. AB 1234 is a disclosure law. …The Legislature could have said we will not allow flat allowances. They chose not to do that. There’s a separate statute that says flat allowances are allowed. That was already existing. But the Legislature didn’t change that. The Legislature instead said you can have whatever allowance you want, whatever expense reimbursement you want, as long as it’s reasonable, and as long as you disclose your actual expenses. So that’s the way the law reads.

I understand that the Union-Tribune reporter wrote back in November as I recall that my opinion last spring was that flat allowances were required. That was inaccurate and he understands that. I don’t get all excited when something’s inaccurate. It’s miscommunication. But if you read this (opinion), it’s clear there’s nothing in here that says flat allowances are illegal. That’s because there’s nothing in the law that says that.

You don’t take the auto allowance yourself.

I don’t.

Why not?

I don’t because, you know, I kind of walk to work and as a city attorney, I walk to court when I want to go to court, I walk to City Hall. I might go out to give a speech or meet with folks out in the community four or five times a week, but it’s not as pervasive as a council member. I can’t justify that.

You said during your campaign that the city attorney needs the approval of the council and mayor except in consumer or criminal litigation. Doesn’t the Chargers lawsuit go against that?

Under the city charter, there are some cases where the City Council approves litigation but then actually the city treasurer is given the authority to approve as to collection cases. … The city treasurer works for the mayor. So the important thing is that the City Attorney’s Office doesn’t unilaterally make the decision on filing lawsuits except in the area of consumer and criminal. …

The questions in the campaign didn’t come up about collection cases. … So I suppose if somebody had asked me during the campaign — what about collection cases? — I would have sat down and read the charter and would have discovered, oh, the city treasurer is the one who authorizes it.

The concept and the difference in the campaign between my predecessor and me, Mr. Aguirre and me, is that Mike felt the City Attorney’s Office can unilaterally make those decisions. I do not.

I know that the Chargers and Mike Aguirre had a pretty sour relationship. Did you like call them or anything and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to file this lawsuit against you but only because the statute of limitations is about to expire?’

I did right afterwards because in advance, it was common knowledge, I didn’t know. This is our revenue and recovery division. We have 135, now we have 135 lawyers. Our revenue and recovery division works directly with the treasurer’s office and they filed the lawsuit.

Once we learned of it, I did call (Chargers special counsel) Mark Fabiani and we sat down and reached an agreement, it’s called a tolling agreement, very quickly. He understood. If we had not filed this lawsuit … that would have been malpractice.

I’ve heard criticism that you’re still talking about Mike Aguirre a lot, that you’re still in campaign mode—

Where did you hear that?

You didn’t hear it after the swearing in, especially with all the Andrea Dixon stuff?

I haven’t heard that from anybody.

Do you think you’ve been too focused on Mike Aguirre and kind of painting yourself in opposition to him?

I have been focused since after the election on managing this office. There’s a lot of things that we’ve done in this office. I spent a five-minute inauguration speech that a reporter didn’t like. You can reprint that speech and have people decide for themselves. What is was a pivot. It was to say our office was no longer a Mike Aguirre office, it was a new day and here’s how we’re going to do things differently. It was a five-minute speech and I moved on.

I did go to the breakfast, the (Urban Land Institute) one a couple days ago and there were a lot of references to this is what Mike Aguirre did, this is what I’m doing.

How we’re doing it differently. You bet we’re doing it differently. And I’m going to point out when we do it differently. This is a different office. This office wins. This office gives advice to the client, and I want the client to know that. I want the city staff and I want the council and the mayor and the city employees to come to us for advice.

You’ve said in this interview and many times during the campaign that you want to be a lawyer, not a politician. Isn’t it political to be saying the Mike Aguirre era’s over and those kinds of things. Isn’t there a political dimension to that?

No, there is not a political dimension to say how we’re doing things and how we’re doing things differently. I think people have a right to know how we’re doing things differently. They voted for me under the auspices we would rebuild a law firm and I’m telling them how we’re rebuilding a law firm. …

When you change things, you have to say this is where we were and this is how we changed it. Do I not say that we had 152 lawyers, $1.6 million overbudget? What meaning does it have for me to say we are now, as of 45 days, $679,000 overbudget and with 135 lawyers about. What meaning does that have without saying where we were when we first started? Because when people say, well gee, you’re $679,000 overbudget, that’s ridiculous, you’ve got to show where you came from to show improvement, to show what you’ve done. That’s all we’re saying. We’re pivoting. We’re changing.

During the campaign, my colleague Will Carless wrote a profile of you, The Reluctant Politican, I guess more talking about the campaign than about the job. Now that you’ve been in the job for a while, how are you liking it? Is it something you like doing or are you like, what did I get myself into?

I miss being a judge. I do love the law, that is my passion. I am very comfortable not being in politics, a political person, and being a lawyer. In other words, I’m very happy being the city attorney and not being the mayor. … To put it in perspective, I don’t want to have to decide between the Children’s Pool and the seals, but I do want to be involved in ways to get them out of the lawsuit so they can make that decision. …

I enjoy rebuilding a law firm. I have a positive sense that I am helping the city, as are my partners, I get energy from the lawyers that we have. We have a lot of really good young lawyers who I love working with. …

As far as the reluctant politician, I’m not running for any other campaign, so I don’t have to do that again. I do not like raising money and therefore I won’t. I do not like being in the superficial-type parts of the campaign. I do like talking with people, so you’re going to see me talking. I like that, as long as they want to talk about the law.

What do you miss about being a judge?

It is very honorable. You get to focus on the law. There are no political distractions, which is nice. Here, though I am an attorney, I am operating in a political environment. I do understand that. That’s naive to say you’re not operating in a political environment. I am an attorney operating in a political environment, so OK this makes it a little bit more difficult. In the judicial arena — although I very much enjoy talking with you, as a judge, in 10 years, I never did talk to a reporter.

— Interview by RANI GUPTA

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