City Attorney Mara Elliott has become a national leader in the use of red flag laws. / Photo by Megan Wood
City Attorney Mara Elliott / Photo by Megan Wood

Well, the very dynamic that provoked people to want to eliminate the San Diego city attorney as an elected office, managed Wednesday to paralyze the debate about whether a ballot measure to eliminate the city attorney as an elected office should go forward.

Quick review: A couple weeks ago here and on the podcast, we wrote and talked about how the San Diego City Council’s Rules Committee was set to consider a ballot measure that would eliminate the elected city attorney as it is.

The measure would put the city’s litigation and advice section under an appointed, no longer elected, city attorney called a “municipal counsel.” There would still be elections for a city attorney to prosecute misdemeanor-level crimes.

Elliott had once been in favor of eliminating the elected city attorney and, we wrote, had clearly changed her mind based on a memo she issued about the proposal that was highly critical.

She told us this week she has not taken a position at all.

First, what happened: The Rules Committee did meet Wednesday. But Council President Sean Elo-Rivera, who was chairing the committee, immediately asked for a continuance (this was first reported by the Union-Tribune).

Elo-Rivera said he wanted more time for his colleagues and him to consider everything that they were reading.

“I would like some more time for myself and the council to consider how to navigate a reality where we as a body publicly charged with policy making are seeking objective and neutral legal analysis for a policy proposal from an office that in my reading of the materials has now demonstrated an expressed political and policy opposition to that proposal,” he said.

Elliott was not pleased with that assertion.

“To say our office has taken a position is inaccurate and misleading. It is not what happened,” she said.

She pointed out that a separate memo, an actual legal analysis, was very straightforward and neutral. It does seem to be a straight-forward analysis of the text and law, line by line.

But yes, there was that other memo that was unquestionably critical of the measure.

Here’s just one passage from it: “The Proposed Measure would pit elected officials against one another; interfere with equitable access to legal services, reduce accountability from elected officials, and decrease transparency, all while increasing the City’s annual costs by creating a separate and distinct legal department.”

Other than that, it may be great?

That seems very clearly like Elliott and her office have taken a position on the measure! It blew my mind she’d even consider saying otherwise. And that may be what she was acknowledging in her next comment in response to Elo-Rivera.

“I think, after serving in this position for seven years, the public deserves to hear what I think about the proposal,” she said.

She went on.

“What you decide to put to the voters is up to you. But the voters deserve to understand what is put before them. I am getting the impression, at this point, that it is your intention to push me out of this conversation. I will not be silenced I have a lot to say,” she said.

With that, most of the fireworks were over save for unnecessary exchange between former city attorney Mike Aguirre and Elo-Rivera, who was trying to keep Aguirre’s comments contained to the question only if the discussion should be continued or not.

Elliott’s take: I asked the city attorney to explain.

“There’s no position in there,” she insisted to me.

Actually, she said she did take one position: That this is a major change to city governance, and she thinks people need to pay attention to it and she wants them to understand things about it.

“My job is to help them see these questions early so they’re ready and when the measure passes and they have to make all these changes, they’re not saying ‘My god, I didn’t understand this,’” she said.

She kind of thinks it should be elected: I did ask her to tell me where she was. In 2015, she believed it should be an appointed position, not an elected position. In 2020, she had evolved.

Now? Now she believes that being independent and elected has been crucial.

“The person you talked to all those years ago came from the county. It was so different,” she said. “I can share that it has been nice to have the freedom to say what I need to say. When you’re appointed, you are more careful because you want to keep your position. I have had to take positions that are uncomfortable and have not won me many friends but they were important.”

Even so, she says she can analyze the issue for the city because she won’t be personally impacted by it. She’ll be gone. She just wants them to be ready and have thought of everything.

In Wednesday’s meeting, you can tell what they’re all dealing with super clearly. The leader of the City Council is doubting he can trust the analysis of the city attorney because she has a very defined perspective. Her memo doesn’t say “we oppose this” but she also clearly values the office as it is and at the very least thinks there are some huge problems with the proposal. If he wants to see a proposal like this, though, can he trust her to help him?

For her part, the city attorney sees herself providing analysis they wouldn’t get if she were subservient to them, and she saw them as wanting her to just go along with what they had in mind.

Sunbreak Ranch, Quick Take

I will flesh this take out more but I do think the growing interest in concentrating homeless people in a remote camp called Sunbreak Ranch is an important political story. And this week’s update that the Marine Corps is not interested in helping at all was definitely news.

I think it’s a fundamentally flawed concept. (In short, it’s too far away. People won’t want to go and if you make them, then you have created, yes, a concentration camp.) Part of the political story is that it’s distracting a lot of influential people who may otherwise contribute to discourse about actual improvements to the situation. If there’s one big perfect answer to the crisis, they don’t have to think about the myriad other potential but more difficult answers.

But I do think they get one thing right: The need to treat the homelessness crisis like a true acute emergency not unlike the displacement that occurs from a natural disaster like a tsunami. Every available building and piece of land should be made safe enough to allow people to be and find help while the city cleans up other areas not suitable for encampments. Especially if the city is truly going to enforce the no-camping ban.

Related: Our Lisa Halverstadt recently wrote about the shocking lack of beds available for low-income people who may want to get off drugs. I’m not sure this region has grappled with what it would take to support tens of thousands of people if we really want them to deal with the horrific and painful withdrawal symptoms that come from the decision to stop using opioids or alcohol, etc.

We should be treating that health crisis the way we mobilize for a pandemic or acute injury triage. Remember the tents that sprung up alongside hospitals and the plans for even bigger options?

Watch this space: There are murmurs city leaders, including Chief Operating Officer Eric Dargan, are getting more and more serious about pursuing a safe camping or large-tent solution at H-Barracks at the old NTC near the airport. City staff has mentioned the idea before as potential site to up to 700 homeless residents. It could be much more.


Speaking of an elected lawyer: Since the last Politics Report, we confirmed Attorney General Rob Bonta for the live podcast portion of Politifest today. Our old friend Liam Dillon, now a great investigative reporter for the LA Times on housing issues across the state will interview Bonta about how far he is willing to go to force cities to accommodate more housing. After a half hour, the rest of the podcast crew, including me, will join them on stage and banter a bit to close out the day. Can’t wait.

Politifest is today: If you’re reading this and overcome with fear of missing out, you can no longer register online but you can come to University of San Diego, Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice and we can ring you up there. Schedule is here.

If you have registered, get the app (Apple here, Google here)! It’s quite nice and a great way to decide where to go. We’ll also take audience questions via the app. Search for the “Politifest 2023” event and download it. After downloading, log in to the app using your registered email address to gain access to the event.

Hope to see you at Politifest. If you have any feedback or ideas for the Politics Report, send the to

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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  1. Woman has no shame left. You were elected by people who want prosecution of quality of life crimes but you don’t prosecute quality of life crimes. You are essentially a despot. What comes next? No idea, that’s why she’s having public meltdowns on a regular basis.

  2. I was on the webinar. Why do you label the conversation between former city attorney Aguirre and Council President Rivera as unnecessary. Mr. Aguirre as far as I know is an American citizen who had valuable things to say on this topic. I am a candidate for San Diego Mayor and VOS has never invited me to anything. I too, am an American citizen. Start putting truth in your reporting, please. Dan Smiechowski for mayor.

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