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City Attorney Has a Troubling Track Record on Vacation Rentals

One would hope the city attorney would not participate in partisan politics. Unfortunately, it is looking more and more like City Attorney Mara Elliott has decided to play favorites.

City Attorney Mara Elliott discusses vacation rentals at an Ocean Beach Town Council meeting.

City Attorney Mara Elliott discusses vacation rentals at an Ocean Beach Town Council meeting. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

When is enough enough? That is the question many of us in the short-term rental community are asking after City Attorney Mara Elliot blew up a solution just days before a long-scheduled public hearing on this issue.

Voice of San Diego CommentaryBut perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Despite her claims to the contrary, Elliot has a long and troubling track record of playing political favoritism rather than serving the best interests of her clients, the San Diego City Council.

The city charter outlines that the job of the city attorney is to provide advice to the city’s elected officials. Further, it states that the “City Attorney conduct their legal work with the highest level of integrity, honesty, and professionalism.” One would interpret this language to mean the city attorney should focus on assisting City Council members in crafting legal solutions to their questions and policy-based direction.

On Sept. 29, four members of the San Diego City Council – Chris Ward, David Alvarez, Mark Kersey and Scott Sherman – took the unusual step of co-writing a bipartisan plan to regulate short-term rentals that represented months of discussion and input from stakeholders. The intent was to balance the economic benefits of the industry with appropriate neighbor protections. The memo also came on the heels of Councilwoman Barbara Bry’s plan that would place severe restrictions on the industry, effectively killing the whole-home rental market and eliminating the majority of the $20 million the city of San Diego reaps annually from this industry.

In issuing their memo, the four Council members were seeking the city attorney’s help in crafting the legal framework that would allow them to adopt this language into the city’s municipal code. But that did not happen. Instead, Elliot sent a memo that appears designed to pave the road for Bry’s proposal to be adopted, as the largest provision – a 90-day restriction – was given the green light, but all of the key provisions in the four-person memo were referenced as having many concerns.

While disappointing, the city attorney’s actions are not too much of a departure on the vacation rental issue if you look at her past actions.

In March 2016, Save San Diego Neighborhoods, a group that wants nothing less than a complete ban on short-term rentals throughout the city, endorsed Elliott for city attorney, and members of its leadership began making contributions to her campaign. By May of last year, Elliott was campaigning against short-term rentals at a Pacific Beach public forum.

This spring, Elliott issued her opinion that short-term vacation rentals are prohibited by the city’s current zoning regulations, breaking from the analysis of the past two city attorneys, who both agreed there is not enough clarity in the city’s municipal code to declare them illegal.

Elliott attended a Pacific Beach Town Council meeting in September and encouraged audience members there to pursue a vacation rental referendum if they don’t like what the City Council ultimately decides.

When Ward, Alvarez, Kersey and Sherman issued their memo in September, Elliott dropped her heavily biased review of their approach less than four days before the Council hearing on vacation rentals. That was over four weeks later, and only a few days before the Council was supposed to vote on the matter. Are we really to believe that it took the city attorney’s office four weeks to offer its opinion on a three-page memo?

Of course it didn’t. Elliott waited until the very last minute to derail the process that would have created a legal framework for short-term vacation rents because the plan went against everything she campaigned on, as well as her personal opinion.

Our city attorney’s blatant bias in the short-term rental debate in San Diego can no longer be ignored. The facts all add up to one thing: Elliott does not want short-term rentals in our city, and she is not afraid to abuse her power as city attorney to get what she wants.

One would hope the city attorney would not participate in these kind of partisan politics. Unfortunately, it is looking more and more like she has decided to play favorites and provide advice that benefits the anti-vacation rental crowd, rather than in the best interest of her clients – the city of San Diego.

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