Councilman Chris Cate was a policy adviser to then-Councilman Kevin Faulconer when I met him. He was the wonkiest guy in the room then and few at City Hall can match his grasp of public policy today. I recently heard him preface his questions at a City Council hearing by saying, “I’m going to get in the weeds here.”

Voice of San Diego CommentaryCate is a client of mine, but I would say this about him regardless: He gets in the weeds because he cares. He believes in what the city is doing. He has a freakish affinity for protecting taxpayers, so you won’t be surprised to learn he reads everything. He studies all sides of an issue before making a decision. He did so as an executive with the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. He did so as a Council representative, and he does so as a City Council member. He has earned the respect of people on both sides of the political aisle because he’s smart and because he’s one of the nicest guys in any room.

So people were surprised when this affable wonk stepped forward to say he was the one who shared a memorandum from the city attorney that was marked confidential.

Did this revelation make him a leaker, or was he making a disclosure as “a necessary function of his or her official duties” as allowed by the City Code?

Cate disclosed the memo because he had the right to do so.

His instincts, borne out of years of analysis on behalf of taxpayers, led him to seek more input before reaching a decision, to ensure all issues were on the table and to make sure he heard from all sides before weighing in on this important public policy debate.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

This all began when the city attorney issued a non-confidential memo on May 23 addressing certain flaws in a citizens initiative that aims to turn the Chargers’ former home into a redevelopment project called SoccerCity. Three weeks later, on June 15, the city attorney issued a follow-up memo, labeling it confidential. The second memo was given to Cate just four days before he had to vote on the controversial measure. A continuation of her initial memo, the city attorney’s second memo was issued following an extensive legal review of her initial memo from attorneys representing SoccerCity.

That legal review says the city attorney’s initial memo “contained a number of statements about the initiative that we believe are incomplete or inaccurate. Many of these claims appear to be reflective of claims raised in a May 17 letter from (SoccerCity opponents).” The review goes on to challenge 18 points the city attorney made in her initial memo.

Armed with this information and new points the city attorney was raising in her follow-up memo, Cate wanted clarification and more information before casting his vote. So he asked a representative of SoccerCity – the very people who could provide an additional legal perspective – to review the second memo and share their analysis with him.

Cate is not an attorney and he did not see anything in the follow-up memo that looked to him like strategic or tactical legal information. Attorneys, reporters and others have said there isn’t anything in either memo that jeopardizes the city’s legal position. The memos, which were never discussed in closed session, describe some “what if” consequences if voters were to approve the SoccerCity measure.

Fast-forward to the events of the past week:

Cate stood before reporters and answered all of their questions at a press conference.

He said he sought the information he did so he could make an informed decision and share his reasoning with the people he reports to, who will vote on the SoccerCity initiative next year.

He said he feels bad about what happened and understands why the city attorney reacted the way she did when she learned someone had shared her follow-up memo.

He said that moving forward he would, at a minimum, inform the city attorney of his decision to seek additional information.

He reiterated that he has not yet decided if the SoccerCity proposal is the best path forward for San Diego.

As if on cue, Cate’s political opponents responded with flared nostrils. The folks yelling the loudest are the usual advocates of transparency and open government. In any other context, the councilman’s critics would be applauding the disclosure of information vital to an election decision. But theirs is a politically motivated response driven in part, it seems, by the city attorney.

The city attorney has made it her mission to convict Cate in the media. She also is now on record as saying she longer trusts her client. This raises a whole host of potential problems for the city and city attorney’s office, including a potential conflict of interest the city attorney may now have in advising anyone on SoccerCity.

There is a related wrinkle that’s just as troubling as the political punches. For some reason, the city attorney’s office felt it was their right to announce that the district attorney’s office is investigating this matter. The city attorney’s spokesman, who is neither an attorney nor an investigator, released this confidential information in a written statement to the media following Cate’s press conference. Who shared this confidential information with the city attorney’s spokesman and why did he feel it was his secret to share? There is a reason agencies do not disclose the existence of investigations.

In fact, the very spokesman who shared this confidential information is quoted in a June 30 column saying, “As you know, we do not discuss investigations by other agencies, real, potential or hypothetical.” I suppose that rule does not apply when politics are in play.

Cate’s disclosure was neither illegal nor improper. It is not a crime to do your job, to request and gather additional information in order to make an informed decision. The voters are likely to support anyone who listens to all sides and gives them all the facts.

Tony Manolatos is a partner in an advertising and PR firm. Cate is one of the firm’s clients. Manolatos’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

    This article relates to: Opinion, Politics

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    22 comments
    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    This PR spin piece tries to ignore city law. The only way readers should think that Cate was only doing his job is if we accept the fact that he doesn't  work for the people who elected him; he's working for FS Investors and the SuckerCity hedge fund cartel, in hope of big campaign contributions when he was going to run for mayor, or a cushy office job when he's run out of office. .  

    Patrick Flynn
    Patrick Flynn subscriber

    Did Mr. Cate release to the public the resulting analysis from the SoccerCity people?

    rhylton
    rhylton subscriber

    I am not clever enough to conclude that sharing a confidential City memorandum, in the presence of specific codified prohibitions, can be anything other than illegal. No un-clever use of words, as we have in the opinion piece, can make it not so. I suppose the opinion writer will concede that it "seems" illegal, for Cate's silent deception made it so, as does the DA's "investigation" —quoted for we know how those tend to turn out, with this lot. 


    I am more than a little amused that the writer , referring to the DA's investigation, used: "The city attorney’s spokesman, who is neither an attorney nor an investigator, released this confidential information." (perhaps the DA should investigate the spokesman too.)


    Now, where did "I hear I was just doing my job" used as an excuse before?

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    It is instructive to read this piece in San Diego City Beat. According to the article: “The head of the District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit, Paul Azevedo, told [the City Attorney's] office in June that we could tell the media that his unit was investigating the leak of confidential information. This was also announced in open court this summer during a hearing on the [Briggs] lawsuit.” http://sdcitybeat.com/news-and-opinion/spin-cycle/chris-cate’s-mea-gulpa/

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Let's be clear. Mr. Cate only admitted his complicity when he learned that his transgression was going to be exposed. There is nothing honorable, responsible, or accountable in that. It's just a PR tactic to reduce damage.

    While it is inevitable that a PR person for Mr. Cate would claim that this is political, it's important to remember that when this document was released, the City Attorney, not knowing who released it, said that whomever did so should resign. Similarly the Mayor, Mr. Cate's former employer, said that if someone on his staff had released it, they would be fired. So Ms. Elliot's actions here are quite consistent with her apolitical assertions earlier.

    As Ms. Elliot has pointed out, the City Council participates in many confidential discussions. One example is labor negotiations, wherein if unions know the stance of the City Council, they gain an advantage. Would conservatives (or anyone) like to see a councilmember break confidentiality for that? How about a lawsuit against the city in which tens of thousands or millions of taxpayer dollars might be on the line? Mr. Cate has shown himself to be untrustworthy going forward. How can the City Council operate with a snitch in their midst and how can confidential discussions take place in future with confidence they will remain so?

    No, Mr. Cate simply decided to break confidentiality to please a special interest with whom he was apparently allied. Regardless of political party, regardless of the law, that is an indication of an individual who is devoid of ethics.

    rhylton
    rhylton subscriber

    @Chris Brewster Mr. Cate is a liar too. He is a member of a group that knew that the SDPD was manipulating, i.e. purging stop data that was used by SDSU. He knew for I told them (the PSLN Committee) so, repeatedly in person and in writing, in 2015. Last April, I appeared before them again and repeated that fact. His eyes were impassive stone-cold.


    I do not wish him well in this new business.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Chris Brewster Regarding your comparison with labor negotations: "Cate...did not see anything in the follow-up memo that looked to him like strategic or tactical legal information. Attorneys, reporters and others have said there isn’t anything in either memo that jeopardizes the city’s legal position."


    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Hofmann: It is not in Mr. Cate's unilateral discretion to decide, as he did in this case, to disclose confidential information. Only a majority of the City Council can make that decision. If each councilmember is given license to make such decisions on their own, then, by definition, there is no confidentiality. As for the statement you quote above, it comes from a PR person. There is no credibility in a statement that references unnamed people, and in any case it's immaterial whether the document jeopardizes the city's position. That's a matter of opinion. What is not a matter of opinion is that it is/was confidential.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Chris Brewster If it should not have been marked confidential, then not gaining permission to disclose such information would have been just a technicality.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Hofmann: When the City Attorney (this one or any prior) determines that legal advice should be confidential, they so advise the City Council and, in this case, stamp the document as such. It is the advice of the City Council's designated (by voters) attorney. Other attorneys may differ (or not), but that's immaterial. Let's look at this from another perspective. If you tell a friend something in confidence and they agree to keep it confidential, but then tell others, would you trust them with confidential information in future?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Chris Brewster It's significantly easier to mismark a document as confidential that shouldn't be than to request and obtain a verbal promise to keep something in confidence. So the example of telling a friend something in confidence doesn't apply, unless this was a test of Cate's loyalty to the city attorney.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Hofmann: Well, this exercise certainly tested Mr. Cate's loyalty to his oath. He failed.

    bob jones
    bob jones

    An one would expect, a very biased defense of his client.  In my opinion, what Cate did was wrong, no matter how you parse it, regardless of the level of illegality.  This sneaky, back-door behavior is too common in SD politics and then rationalized by cronies when exposed.  I actually believe it is due to a lack of capability as evidenced by many poor negotiations the city has conducted.  Why did he wait so long to come forward?  For me, this speaks to his intent and/or his taking very poor advice.  In either case, in my opinion, he demonstrated very bad judgement and I think he should resign.  Lots of people are nice and care about our city, but that doesn't mean they should be part of our city council, especially when they demonstrate such poor judgement in such a sneaky way.

    GERARD KOPOTIC
    GERARD KOPOTIC

    "Cate is not an attorney and he did not see anything in the follow-up memo that looked to him like strategic or tactical legal information. Attorneys, reporters and others have said there isn’t anything in either memo that jeopardizes the city’s legal position."  Your right he is not an attorney.  Whether it actually reveals some thing or not is not the point at all.  Chris Cate is the Snowden of the City of San Diego. 

    mike johnson
    mike johnson subscriber

    @GERARD KOPOTIC  Not only is Cate not an attorney. He would not make a good literature professor. He does not understand the word "confidential".

    Regina George
    Regina George

    The fact that Cate actually pays for advice this bad is proof of his poor judgment

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    It would appear the city attorney disagrees with you and Cate.

    Carl Starrett
    Carl Starrett

    @David Crossley I read the City Attorney's guest editorial in the Union Tribune and was sorry I wasted my time. She claims what Cate did was illegal and wasn't exactly forthcoming with anything closely resembling decent legal analysis. Just because the City Attorney claims something is illegal doesn't make it so.