Thursday, March 14, 2013
SAN DIEGO The public got a taste of the relationship between San Diego Mayor Bob Filner and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith at a recent press conference, which was called by Goldsmith. Filner showed up without being invited.
Public squabbles at San Diego city hall are nothing new. But insiders say bickering between Mayor Bob Filner and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith’s office have degenerated into heated confrontations and outright yelling and screaming behind the scenes. So much so that Goldsmith won’t allow his staff lawyers to go the mayor’s office without a "witness."
“He did not advise me," Filner said. "It would have been nice, Mr. Goldsmith, to have a memo. It would have been nice to have advice. I am your client. As privileged communication, you have not only been unprofessional but unethical in this press conference.”
In private, city officials said the clashes have been even more fierce and prompted the city attorney to change policy.
Goldsmith alerted his staff in late February that his lawyers, especially women, were not to visit the mayor's office without a "witness." City officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that directive came after incidents involving Filner and lawyers from the city attorney's office.
In one, officials said Filner crumpled up a legal opinion and threw it at Chief Deputy City Attorney Leslie Fitzgerald.
The incident prompted Goldsmith to send a memo to his staff on unprofessional conduct in the workplace.
"I consider our office personnel to be professionals who are entitled to be treated with respect," Goldsmith wrote. He urged his staff to report unprofessional treatment. And then he added this, "Abuse may come in the form of yelling, degrading or even throwing things, none of which will be tolerated."
City staff and politicians differ on the seriousness of Goldsmith’s concern. Councilman David Alvarez characterized closed sessions as lively but not extraordinary. Nor did he find it unusual that Goldsmith doesn’t want his lawyers going to the mayor’s office unaccompanied.
“If that’s what the city attorney wants to do, that’s his prerogative," Alvarez said. "When I go to meetings sometimes, I bring people with me.”
But the tone of city hall discussions has left a bigger impression on others.
Goldsmith has told his staff if they ever find themselves in a situation where they are being treated unprofessionally, they should remove themselves.
In fact, Goldsmith removed himself from a closed session meeting last month. City officials, who were present, said a deputy city attorney was in the process of explaining a legal position when Filner asked her repeatedly what a word she used meant and would not let up. The questioning continued until sources say Goldsmith stood up, slammed his hand on the table, told the mayor he wouldn't tolerate such treatment and walked out taking his staff with him.
Goldsmith and his staff refused to comment for the story.
Filner did not respond to a request for an interview. But on KPBS’s Midday earlier this month, he described his relationship with Goldsmith as a work in progress.
When a caller to the program asked Filner whether he thought he should show civility to be an effective leader, the mayor responded with, “Yeah, of course I do. But you also have to have a mayor who stands up for the people and the prerogatives of the office.”
However, tone is crucial said Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego Mesa College.
“If the message is overwhelmed by the way you deliver the message, it’s counterproductive," Luna said.
And he adds the public is getting shortchanged. Serious debates on the issues are one thing but acrimonious arguments and walkouts mean the city’s business isn’t getting done. Luna said legitimate issues may separate the two men such as whether the city attorney represents the people of San Diego or the mayor. San Diego’s strong mayor system may also be a factor in how the relationship between the men is unfolding. There’s the matter of Filner adjusting to his new job as well.
Filner spent many years as a congressman. Luna said congressional representatives are infamous for treating office staff poorly.
“It’s not behavior that’s going to buy you what you want in the end," Luna said. "It’s one thing to present yourself as a strong boss. It’s another to present yourself as a bullying boss. If the mayor is doing the latter, he’s probably going to need a course correction.”
One option, Luna said, could include civility lessons.