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Statement: “Criminal prosecution is a tiny part of the responsibilities of that office.” — Political consultant Tom Shepard, who is consulting for San Diego city attorney candidate Gil Cabrera, said about the city attorney’s office in the San Diego Union-Tribune on July 6.
Analysis: With Mayor Kevin Faulconer so far coasting toward a second term, the battle to replace a termed-out Jan Goldsmith as city attorney could be the only prominent citywide race on the ballot next year.
Four high-profile candidates have declared their intentions to run for the position. The Union-Tribune profiled the race earlier this month and included comments from political consultant Tom Shepard, who’s advising candidate Gil Cabrera, an attorney and former chairman of the San Diego Ethics Commission.
Robert Hickey, the only Republican in the race so far, is a county prosecutor. The U-T says his campaign material has touted his work in “taking criminals off the streets and bringing closure to the families of victims.”
Shepard dismissed Hickey’s resume in the story:
Shepard, who is consulting for Cabrera in the race, said Hickey playing up his prosecutorial background is somewhat disingenuous because the city attorney’s job is more about protecting taxpayers from litigation and making sure everything at City Hall is done legally.
“Criminal prosecution is a tiny part of the responsibilities of that office,” he said.
Is Shepard right? Should voters be less impressed by Hinkey’s credentials since they’ll be largely irrelevant on the job? The numbers should hold the answer.
First, some background. The San Diego city attorney’s office prosecutes criminal misdemeanor and infraction cases in the city of San Diego (except the South Bay sections) plus some small areas in North County.
Infractions include crimes like driving over the speed limit. Misdemeanors may sound like small potatoes too, and indeed the punishment often is no more than a year in jail or up to a $1,000 fine. But misdemeanors encompass a wide variety of serious crimes like drunken driving, domestic violence, drug possession, hit and run and identity theft. And people prosecuted by the city attorney’s office may face multiple charges, meaning they could go to jail for much longer than a year.
The claim by Shepard hinges on whether this work is truly a “tiny” part of what the city attorney’s office does.
In terms of budget and staffing, it’s not tiny: Out of a $42 million budget this year, the office will spend more than a quarter of its cash on criminal matters. And roughly half of the office’s 353 employees work on criminal issues.
In terms of number of cases filed, it’s not tiny, either: According to the city attorney’s website, the office files more than 2,600 criminal complaints each month.
When asked for comment, Shepard stood by his statements. He said our analysis of the city attorney’s budget, “ignores the far greater importance of the city attorney’s primary responsibility to serve as ‘the chief legal adviser’ for the city and its leaders.”
In the big picture, Shepard might be onto something when he says the efforts of the city attorney’s office in the criminal realm don’t matter as much as its role as a protector of taxpayer money. It’s impossible, however, to measure which is more important — protecting taxpayers (potentially saving them tens of millions of dollars) or protecting residents and visitors from lower-level crimes (also potentially saving them tens of millions of dollars).
We’re focusing on his specific quote, “criminal prosecution is a tiny part of the responsibilities of that office,” since this can be quantified. The numbers prove him wrong. Shepard’s statement is false.
Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego and national president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.