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Candidates, Minus Aguirre, Debate Role of City Attorney

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

Four candidates for San Diego City Attorney agree on one thing: They want Mike Aguirre voted out of office in June. The challengers made their cases at a candidates forum yesterday. One notable no-show was Aguirre himself. KPBS reporter Andrew Phelps has this debrief.

 

A day after the Securities and Exchange Commission charged five former city officials with fraud, all four candidates who showed up said responsible attorneys don't comment on pending litigation.

They did comment on a case in another legal arena: the city attorney's ongoing effort to roll back pension benefits from city workers. It's the cornerstone of Mike Aguirre's legacy.

Moderator Andrew Donohue: Do you intend to pursue the pension issue with the same zeal as Mr. Aguirre?

Former superior court judge Jan Goldsmith : No, my goal is to resolve these pension cases, stop the bleeding of tens of million of dollars of taxpayers' money in a merry-go-round.

Former deputy city attorney Amy Lepine : No, we are kicking a dead horse. We have been for quite awhile. We're not going to be able to litigate our way out of it. If we were able to do that, that would have happened by now.

City Councilman Brian Maienschein : I think that litigation is probably the most uncertain way to ever solve a problem. If you look at the actions of the city attorney on this issue, what has it solved?

City Council President Scott Peters : All the litigation that Mr. Aguirre's filed has not reduced the pension deficit by one dime. It's been working together with everybody, to solve problems, that's done it. Litigation is really an unproductive way to do it, and it won't be my approach.

So all the challengers basically agree they would abandon the pension-rollback case. They say the damage is done. The benefits are vested, so why punish retirees by taking away their pensions?

The challengers also agree on something else: They really don't like Mike Aguirre.

Here's Goldsmith, the former judge.

Goldsmith: Mike Aguirre micromanages. Everything stops at his desk, and he doesn't do it in time. The training program has been destroyed. People are not treated as professionals. People don't come with honest legal opinions to Mr. Aguirre because they're afraid they're going to get yelled at or they're going to get fired.

Goldsmith says he would draw on his own experience as a state legislator, mayor of Poway, and almost ten years on the bench. He says he wants to squeeze all the politics out of the office. Goldsmith is endorsed by the San Diego Republican Party, but most Republican money is funding Councilman Maienschein. Maienschein says he'd be a more temperate city attorney, and he would not use the office for political retribution.

Maienschein: I do not grandstand. I calmly and methodically work to solve problems.

Council President Peters says he would be a downright boring city attorney. Not to say the city attorney shouldn't be a fighter.

Peters: And I've been someone who's fought for solutions on clean water, on transportation, on ethics, and on the pension.

Peters cited the appointment of an independent budget analyst, the reconfiguration of the pension board, and his vote to stop underfunding the system. But neither Peters nor Maienschein can erase the reality of a 2002 vote, when both councilmen elected to underfund the system. Both have acknowledged the mistake and say they got bad advice.

But Lepine, the former deputy city attorney, says the two councilmen represent the "old guard" at City Hall. She says San Diego needs an independent auditor -- and, of course, an independent city attorney.

Lepine: We need to stay the course with independence. We cannot go back on that. And what I'm concerned is going to happen in this election is because of the polarizing personality of the incumbent who has brought independence to this office, that we are going to have a knee-jerk reaction and want to put our heads back into the sand and go back to the old way.

As for that polarizing incumbent: Mike Aguirre was absent but his supporters showed up. They say he's racing to file an appeal on his pension-rollback case. The deadline is Friday.

Andrew Phelps, KPBS News.

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