Three Candidates Face Off For San Diego City Attorney
Friday, January 24, 2020
Photo by KPBS Staff
Three candidates are running for San Diego City Attorney in the March Primary, each bringing their own ideas for how the city's top lawyer should be representing the city.
Transparency advocate Cory Briggs and Peter Mesich, a former deputy city attorney, are challenging incumbent Mara Elliott, saying the city needs more transparency and community outreach from the city attorney's office.
Meanwhile, Elliott says she's confident in her track record of protecting San Diegans and their tax dollars.
“We’re removing guns from the streets," Elliott said. “We’re protecting children so people don’t have to worry when they send their kids to school.”
In 2019, Elliott authored the Safe Storage of Firearms Ordinance, which required all guns in a residence to be locked away or disabled by a trigger lock unless they are being carried.
Going forward, Elliott says she wants to increase accountability for elderly care facilities through collaborations with county health offices.
“There are a lot of San Diegans who are elderly and don’t have family to take care of them,” she said. “We’ve really cracked down on independent facilities that are not following the laws. That work has only just begun.”
Briggs and Mesich want to improve the office’s relationship with the community. Briggs said he'd establish a resident’s advisory committee that would hold weekly meetings with the city attorney’s office.
“Every month they’ll get to haul me into a room, and these folks will get to ask me questions about how I'm operating the city attorney’s office,” he said.
Mesich, who has worked in both the criminal and civil divisions of the city attorney's office, said he wants to train all deputy city attorneys in racial bias. He also seeks to improve the office's neighborhood outreach so it focuses on the unique needs of each community.
“In La Jolla, they’re concerned about the California sea lions, and in the southeastern part of the city, they’re concerned with police officer and citizen relationships,” he said. “We need to get in there and see what can be done.”
Candidates face scrutiny
Briggs and others have recently criticized Elliott for approving a $30 million contract in 2017 with General Electric for energy-efficient streetlights even though she owns GE stock.
“The city attorney reviewed it, approved it, was on the dais when the city council voted on it,” Briggs said. “It turns out she owns quite a bit of stock in the company.”
Elliott acknowledged that her family owns $18,000 in GE stock that she said will be used to help pay for her children’s college education. She dismissed Briggs’ accusations and said she was permitted by state law to own the stock while working on the contract.
“The allegation by my opponent doesn’t make any sense with regard to the role I have as city attorney when I look at the legality of a contract,” Elliott said. “What the city council approved is a hundred percent illegal.”
Briggs, who's been involved in dozens of lawsuits against the city, has also faced scrutiny. In 2015, the investigative news outlet inewsource, a partner of KPBS that shares space in its newsroom, published a series of stories that uncovered irregularities in both his legal and business dealings.
Among inewsource’s findings:
- Briggs’ wife Sarichia Cacciatore worked for a company that was on the other side of several of his lawsuits.
- Briggs and his law firm have represented dozens of nonprofits in court, more than half of which were suspended for, among other things, failing to file financial paperwork with the state and federal governments.
- Briggs made multiple land deals, some of which raised legal and ethical questions.
He denied all of inewsource’s findings, saying they were “completely false.”
In 2015 and 2017, the California State Bar launched investigations into Briggs after it received complaints regarding the legal status of San Diegans for Open Government (SanDOG), one of the nonprofits through which he sued the city. The complaints, one of which cited inewsource reporting, said SanDOG was suspended by the state during a period in which it filed multiple lawsuits against the city.
According to documents from the State Bar that Briggs provided to KPBS, the investigations found that no disciplinary action against him was warranted. Briggs claims to know of no other instance when he represented a suspended corporation in court.
Also in 2015, SanDOG sued inewsource, KPBS and San Diego State University challenging the legality of their lease agreement. A San Diego Superior Court judge dismissed the case, concluding that it was prompted by inewsource’s investigative journalism. Briggs claims to have had no involvement in the lawsuit.
Briggs is, however, still involved in a number of active lawsuits against the city. If he is elected, state and federal ethics laws would require him to remove himself from those cases. And he would not be able to launch any further lawsuits against the city while in office.
Both Briggs and Mesich have concerns about surveillance cameras installed on city streetlights, which has happened on Elliott’s watch.
Mesich said Elliott failed to inform the public and the city council about how the surveillance data can be used.
“San Diego is now the fifth most surveilled city in the United States. It was her job to let the city council know what’s at stake,” Mesich said. “She just pushed it through like it was a public works resource, like it was fire hydrants.”
City officials have said the data collected will not be sold to third parties and are solely owned by the City of San Diego. Elliott said her office is more than open to hearing the community’s concerns about privacy.
“Discussions that have not yet occurred about how this information will be used,” she said. “That is a valid discussion to have, and we’re ready to have it.”
The two top vote-getters in the March primary will head to a runoff election in November.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story KPBS described Cory Briggs' land deals in a way that suggested he profited in the millions. It should have said that he conducted millions of dollars worth of deals. The story has been updated to clarify the sentence and to include a comment from Briggs regarding allegations that he represented suspended corporations in court.
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