June 12 2013 09:04 AM

Voters would never approve it, but that doesn't mean it's not a good idea

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith
Photo by Dave Rolland

During the past week, U-T San Diego has published a story about how the frigid relationship between San Diego Mayor Bob Filner and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith is imperiling a $35-million infrastructure bond, as well as a commentary by Goldsmith attacking Filner directly for his behavior, and the City Council debated whether or not to sign off on Filner's plan to cut Goldsmith's budget (it said no on a 5-4 vote).

The ongoing fracas has us cementing our conclusion that the city attorney should probably be an appointed position and not an elected one—a determination we reached by the end of Mike Aguirre's wild ride as city attorney from 2004 to 2008.

An elected city attorney brings the hope that the person in that job will serve as an independent watchdog on city government and self-serving politicians. But it comes with the risk that the person elected will be a self-serving politician him or herself, not to mention the possibility of being an incompetent lawyer with political aspirations. A campaign should serve as an adequate vetting process, but voters don't always make the best choice, and the best people for the job—folks who simply are great lawyers—usually don't run.

Since 1996, San Diego's has three elected city attorneys: Casey Gwinn, Aguirre and Goldsmith. Gwinn did not act as an effective watchdog; his office played a key, passive role in what wound up being a nationally infamous set of financial scandals. Aguirre relished the role of watchdog, but he was hyper-political, his manner was frenetic and his legal judgment was questionable; voters tossed him after one hair-raising term. Goldsmith, formerly a judge and politician, promised he wouldn't be political, but he has been, and he doesn't seem to be as good a lawyer as he apparently thinks he is—judging from his U-T commentary.

Meanwhile, the citizenry's been forced to endure some pretty embarrassing public squabbling in both Aguirre's and Goldsmith's tenures that's actually gotten in the way of policymaking.

Being an effective check on the executive and legislative branches isn't guaranteed with an elected city attorney, but being political pretty much is; running for office means having to raise a lot of campaign money, the political parties get involved and partisanship is likely. And there's a stronger likelihood that an elected city attorney will tailor the legal decisions she or he makes to her or his political agenda.

Seven of California's 20 largest cities—and three of the top four—have elected city attorneys while 13 have appointed or contracted lawyers. In 2011, Los Angeles studied the option of abandoning the elected city attorney and voters in Oakland actually went to the ballot over the issue; they decided to stick with the elected attorney in a massive landslide. Proposing to take a choice away from the public is a virtually impossible sell.

But that doesn't mean it's a bad idea. We CityBeatniks have worked in municipalities that have appointed lawyers, and we don't recall any passionate crusades to change the system, although, in fairness, those were much smaller cities. 

Epic battles between city attorneys, mayors and city councils are fun for journalists to cover, but, as citizens, we've grown weary of them, and we find ourselves pining for a more corporate-like system in which the mayor and council hire the best lawyer they can find to win cases for the municipality and keep them out of trouble with sound advice. We envision a process in which the mayor nominates a city attorney and the council confirms, and it requires two-thirds of the council to terminate.

Goldsmith whimsically sees his post as half of a branch of government, but we're fine with the three real branches: executive, legislative and judicial. Neither system is a panacea, but, on balance, we favor the one that runs a little more smoothly than what we currently have.

California's largest cities, by population rank

Elected city attorney

1. Los Angeles 2. San Diego 4. San Francisco 7. Long Beach 8. Oakland 14. Chula Vista 17. San Bernardino

Appointed or contracted city attorney

3. San Jose 5. Fresno 6. Sacramento 9. Bakersfield 10. Anaheim 11. Santa Ana 12. Riverside 13. Stockton 15. Fremont 16. Irvine 18. Modesto 19. Oxnard 20. Fontana

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitrybeat.com.


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