City Attorney Mara Elliott has emerged as a statewide leader in using gun violence restraining orders. / Photo by Megan Wood

In 2014, California passed a new law allowing third parties to petition a judge to confiscate someone’s firearms. It remained obscure.

Until Mara Elliott was elected city attorney in San Diego in 2016.

Since 2017, mostly because of Elliott, San Diego County has issued more than 300 such orders, more than any other county. They have been used in cases of domestic violence, to prevent potential suicides and with people grappling with mental illness. Police have seized more than 400 weapons and nearly 80,000 rounds of ammunition.

She has become something of a traveling performer, explaining how to implement the law to departments across the state. The New York Times took note, as the debate about these “red flag” laws raged across the country. Sheriffs in some states are refusing to abide by the laws. Other law enforcement leaders are embracing them. Even President Trump flirted with endorsing them before backing away under intense pressure from firearms advocates.

In all those conversations of 2019, you can find Elliott.

But that wasn’t the only major conversation she started this year. In the spring, she teamed up with state Sen. Ben Hueso on a bill that would have gutted what little enforcement power the state’s Public Records Act allows.

The law is a good law – it allows access to most public documents with limited, clearly defined exemptions. It has, however, one horrible flaw: There is nothing built in to enforce it – no fines if an agency illegally withholds documents, no punishment if a public official refuses to comply.

The responsibility to enforce the law falls on the public. In short, if you think a document is being illegally withheld from public inspection, you have to file a lawsuit and pay all the associated costs of proper legal representation. You must win the lawsuit to have any hope of recovering those costs.

And that – that possibility of recovering costs from an agency that illegally handled a public records request – that is the only enforcement mechanism for the law. The fear of having to pay attorneys is the only thing keeping public records available.

Elliott’s bill would have made collecting attorneys’ fees after prevailing in cases like this impossible, and thus gutted the only enforcement the law has. She was immediately reprimanded by the San Diego City Council and her bill triggered a statewide discussion about how the Public Records Act works. The backlash was so swift and fierce, Hueso pulled it before it could face a single hearing.

In her election campaign in 2016, Elliott vowed to stay behind the scenes, a mere lawyer serving the City Council and mayor. She instead quickly recognized the power of her platform and used it to advance her own ideas. This year, she saw both how well her voice can be received and how intensely it can be opposed.

This is part of our Voice of the Year package, highlighting the people who played a major role in shaping civic discussion in 2019.

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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