Politics Report: The Lure No City Attorney Can Avoid Anymore
Olga Diaz is off the VOSD board and in the D3 supes race. Plus: The future of Civic San Diego. Again. Maybe.
Eleven years since he lost re-election, former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre remains in the psyche of the city attorney’s office.
Aguirre stormed into office in 2004 with a new philosophy. As an elected official, he reasoned, the city attorney did not answer to anyone but the voters. And if that was the case, voters were his clients, not the mayor or City Council.
It was a tremendously disruptive insight and, combined with his mercurial temperament, it threw City Hall into chaos. We have now seen two city attorneys elected since then promising that they would never do that. They would simply be attorneys for the system — apolitical actors serving the City Council and mayor with the best advice possible.
And we have now seen two city attorneys realize just how great Aguirre’s insight was, how powerful the office can be and how much independence they really enjoy. Jan Goldsmith, Aguirre’s successor, couldn’t avoid the sweet nectar of doing his own thing. He acted independently on everything from labor negotiations to the Chargers saga to pension reform and general day-to-day operations.
When term limits forced him out, a chief deputy, Mara Elliott, made her promises to stay in the background even more succinct and unambiguous.
In 2015, as she geared up her campaign for the top job, she told us the mayor and the City Council would be her client. No caveats.
“I think Aguirre brought in this perception that he was acting, he was the voice of the people. He was the lawyer for the people. But our client, the Council and the mayor, represent the people. They’ve been elected by their constituents to be the voice,” she said.
Since she got elected, she has also found her own voice. She has brought in national issues for the Council to consider and declared, on her own, that vacation rentals were illegal in the city of San Diego. But her independence from her supposed clients hadn’t been as striking as it was this week when the City Council unanimously rebuked her for pursuing a troubling reform to the California Public Records Act. She had independently sought out new statewide legislation that would have made the only enforcement mechanism in the public records law more difficult to trigger.
“I’m disappointed that the City Council was not consulted on this proposed legislation. Although I understand we legally don’t have to be, I think it would have been important,” said Councilwoman Barbara Bry at a City Council meeting dedicated to setting the city’s lobbying agenda for state and national legislation.
Elliott hadn’t even given the City Council and mayor a head’s up about this intensely controversial legislation.
As her deputy reminded them and everyone acknowledged, she could do whatever she wanted on that.
Like Aguirre recognized, her bosses are the voters, not the City Council.
Out there, one of you reading this may dream of someday becoming city attorney. When that time comes, how about we just skip the pretense that the city attorney is apolitical and will serve the mayor and City Council quietly and efficiently? Everyone who takes the job recognizes the power it has and enjoys it. Because it must be fun. And it’s fine. It is an elected position. Getting to decide what’s legal and not is immensely powerful.
But when you take political risks, sometimes you lose.
Olga Diaz to Supervisor Race: I Am in You
This week Olga Diaz, a city councilwoman in Escondido, stepped down from the board of directors here at Voice of San Diego.
She is running for the District 3 seat on the County Board of Supervisors, and that will be a race we and everyone else who cares about the county will follow intensely. Our board of directors doesn’t meddle in our coverage. Directors set the budget, evaluate whether we’re staying true to our mission and “What We Stand for” ideals and evaluate major initiatives of the organization. We benefited from her perspective as a North County bilingual woman with a background in accounting.
But we are neutral in the race, and now she may feel a little welcome to complain about our coverage and we can feel comfortable digging into her priorities and background without the awkwardness of doing so while she’s a board member.
Running for the seat was not just sad for her because she had to leave such a prestigious post in this inspiring and pioneering media organization but also because it’s a major career change. Escondido City Council is a part-time job. She’s also the dean of the counseling — the director of student success and student equity — at Palomar College. Now she is aiming for a full-time job at the county.
She said she would regret not taking the chance to get on the Board of Supervisors. “It has not been inspiring to watch county government, and I would love to work with Nathan (Fletcher) and the other people I see coming on board,” she said.
She’s always been very interested in land use issues and when we pointed out that there’s a bit less of that on the Board of Supervisors, she said that wasn’t true. There are some major ones with development proposed on unincorporated land and housing needs in general. She’s particularly interested in homelessness.
“Chronic homelessness is the hardest thing to work on and it’s the thing I want to work on,” she said.
She’s not alone in the race: It’s still unclear whether the incumbent, Kristin Gaspar, will be running for re-election. Her political consultant, Jason Roe, has been upfront that he thinks she should run for Congress again and she seems interested in it.
Another Dem is already in, and she’s got a deep resume: Terra Lawson-Remer, meanwhile, comes to the local race with deep experience at the federal level. She was a senior adviser at the U.S. Treasury for two years under President Barack Obama and held fellowships at the Council on Foreign Relations, Amnesty International and the Brookings Institution, and is a faculty member at UC San Diego’s school on global policy.
“My campaign is about healthcare for all, affordable housing, dignity for immigrants, and shared economic prosperity that raises all boats,” she wrote in her announcement.
State Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins already endorsed Lawson-Remer.
Civic San Diego Lawsuit Resolution? Maybe For Real This Time
We’ve been anticipating the end of a lawsuit against Civic San Diego for months.
Here we go again. The City Council is getting briefed in closed session Tuesday on the state of two lawsuits that have challenged the legality of the city’s downtown redevelopment agency.
The first lawsuit, and the one we’ve had our eye on for years, was filed by Murtaza Baxamusa, a former board member at Civic. He alleges that the city cannot delegate its planning and permitting responsibilities to Civic, as it did in 2012 when it created the current iteration of the organization. Civic – rather than city staff – approves development permits for new projects in the downtown area.
But Baxamusa’s lawsuit shook out more than just that as it went through the courts, leading to a handful of revelations from whistleblowers that, though Civic says were found unsubstantiated by an internal investigation, led to the departure of the agency’s director more than a year ago.
An end in sight? We don’t know what the city’s attorneys plan to tell the City Council in closed session Tuesday about the suit, but a settlement has been looming for months.
Back in June, Baxamua’s attorney and the city attorney told Superior Court Judge Richard Strauss that they had resolved all of their major issues and were in the final stages of hammering out a deal.
Whatever that deal is, it needs to be approved by the City Council. And that would happen in closed session. You see what we’re getting at.
Turns out, Baxamusa isn’t alone. The Council docket also reveals that attorney – and mayoral candidate! – Cory Briggs has filed his own lawsuit against Civic, again over the legality of the city delegating some planning responsibility to the agency. The Council is set to be briefed on that, too.
The lawsuit is over a year old, but somehow we hadn’t previously known – and it doesn’t look like anyone else has yet reported – that Briggs was also involved in the legal challenge to Civic.
(This lawsuit is separate from Briggs’ case against the city over a deal the city struck with an affordable housing developer in the Encanto area. Civic San Diego board member Phil Rath got a stiff fine from the city’s Ethics Commission for participating in the selection process for that project, without disclosing that the developer had paid him $100,000 for lobbying work just 10 months earlier. Briggs says that should kill the deal.)
What’s at stake: Backing up a bit, a major settlement could fundamentally change Civic’s role in city development.
The city created Civic out of the shell of its two pre-existing redevelopment agencies after the state shuttered that tax-funded program. The idea was to recreate the purpose of the program at a local level through new, creative means. Meanwhile, the organization would keep its permitting role downtown, which was crucial for downtown boosters who view it as more development-friendly than city staff.
The big ideas for an ambitious, entrepreneurial redevelopment group never really took off. It doles out some tax credits for projects that create jobs, but nothing like what was envisioned.
Now we’ll wait to see how it changes through any settlement. Anything that removed its authority downtown would count as a major change – and one downtown boosters have fought against for years.
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