Politics Report: The Lure No City Attorney Can Avoid Anymore

Mike Aguirre / Photo by Sam Hodgson

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.

city attorney mara elliott
City Attorney Mara Elliott / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

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 times 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.

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