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City Attorney Candidates Emphasize Experience, Not Issues

Reported by Katie Schoolov

Photo caption:

Photo by MILAN KOVACEVIC

Robert Hickey, left, and Mara Elliott speak at Politifest at San Diego State University, Sept. 24, 2016.

While the two candidates come from opposing parties and, if elected, would be working on issues ranging from gun control to marijuana, neither of the candidates would name any issues that set them apart.

The race for city attorney is the only remaining citywide election in San Diego. While the two candidates come from opposing parties and, if elected, would be working on issues ranging from gun control to marijuana, neither of the candidates would name any issues that set them apart.

"It’s hard for me to say," said Robert Hickey, the Republican candidate.

"I’m not very familiar with what his biggest issues are," said Democratic candidate Mara Elliott of Hickey.

It’s the city attorney’s job to give legal advice to San Diego’s mayor, city council and other departments. The city attorney doesn’t set policy, and the office is nonpartisan. But both parties have been lining up behind the two candidates running for the seat.

Hickey, currently a deputy district attorney who focuses on gang and drug prosecutions, has endorsements from prominent Republicans, including Mayor Kevin Faulconer and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. Dumanis only recently endorsed Hickey, shortly after an ad from a political action committee attacked him for not having his boss's support.

Photo caption:

Photo by Claire Trageser

Robert Hickey talks to voters in his City Heights campaign office, Oct. 2, 2016.

Elliott already works in the City Attorney's Office as a chief deputy, and focuses on the city’s environment and audit committees. She has endorsements from U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer as well as four of the Democrats on the city council. The current city attorney Jan Goldsmith, Elliott's boss, has not made an endorsement.

While the candidates wouldn't name any issues that separate them, they do stand apart on some things.

RELATED: San Diego City Attorney Candidates On The Issues

On police body camera footage, Elliott says it should be released immediately. Hickey says it should be released "at the appropriate time in the legal process." The decision ultimately resides with the district attorney.

On gun control, Elliot says she’d tighten the city’s laws on gun ownership. Hickey says he supports individual rights to carry weapons.

Instead of focusing on issues, both candidates use their experience to set them apart. Elliot works in the City Attorney's Office, which handles civil cases and misdemeanor criminal cases.

"Most of the big ticket items that we work on in the office require a strong municipal law background, as well as a civil litigation background, and I bring both of those to the table," she said.

Photo caption:

Photo by Christopher Maue

Mara Elliott talks to voters during a campaign event at the Hillcrest Brewing Company, Sept. 25, 2016.

But Hickey argues his background as a prosecutor will serve the role.

"As a prosecutor, your role is to seek the truth," he said. "You’re beholden to the truth and no client but the people. If you're bringing cases and not exercising your discretion properly, the voters can have a say about it."

Hickey also emphasizes he has civil law experience from private practice work 15 years ago.

Not surprisingly, both candidates describe the role of the city attorney as one that fits their own backgrounds.

Hickey said he brings an outside perspective.

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"Anyone who does business should have a better experience than they’ve had over really the last 16 years," he said. "They should decide if they want a fresh set of eyes, which I bring, to really do a reset of the City Attorney’s Office."

Elliott said the office needs to lead the city by studying changes to laws.

"We’re going to have driverless cars coming to San Diego. We should be studying that issue," she said. "What are the laws we need to have in place to address this?"

She also said the city attorney should be out in front of the public.

"Sitting with the council at the dais, because people want to know who their city attorney is, and when you come for public comment you want to talk to the person who has the power in the office to make change," she said.

That's one thing she said she'd do differently from her boss Goldsmith. Others, she said, are to have quarterly community forums, and to restore a neighborhood prosecution program that was eliminated by budget cuts. "We used to have a deputy working out of every police division," she said. "That's something I'd like to see us restore right away because we've lost a lot of communication we had before."

RELATED: Hickey, Elliott Vie To Become Next San Diego City Attorney

Hickey said he'd start a program to recruit more diversity to the City Attorney's Office and would have planned better for the flood of cases sent to the office by Proposition 47, which reduced some drug possession felonies to misdemeanors.

"They had close to 100 criminal cases expire due to statute of limitations," he said. "With a misdemeanor, that means you have a year on statute of limitations. You shouldn't be waiting anywhere close to a year to make decisions on those cases. To make matters worse, many of those cases were domestic violence cases."

Hickey said he thinks decisions on whether to charge in domestic violence cases should be made in two days.

Earlier in the election, Elliott said she thought the city attorney should be appointed, not elected. Now, she’s changed her mind.

"I can see why having an elected city attorney is so important," she said. "There is accountability to the public, to the taxpayers, and if they’re unhappy with you, you’re voted out of office."

Hickey said the position should absolutely be elected by voters.

"You have to have an independent city attorney who will be comfortable telling the mayor or the chief of police what they need to hear," he said.

Both candidates will get their way — San Diego voters will decide between them next month.

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Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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