July 3 2013 10:45 AM

Getting into the heads of San Diego's battlin' mayor and city attorney

Photo illustration by Adam Vieyra

"It is the trade of lawyers to question everything, yield nothing, and to talk by the hour."

—Thomas Jefferson

Lucy van Pelt of "Peanuts" fame occasionally broke out the "Doctor is IN" booth to offer psychiatric assistance at five cents a session. Spin Cycle believes she typically charged too much.

With that in mind, let's dust off the analyst's couch and have a crack at the escalating war of words between our fair hamlet's mayor, Bob "Popeye" Filner ("I yam what I yam"), and his personal Brutus, City Attorney Jan "I'm No Wimpy" Goldsmith.

Talk to enough people who know this pair of ramming goats, and it's obvious both can move the needle on the Dickery Scale. The difference? Filner seems uninhibited in his ability to produce a stinging jab—sometimes to effective results, other times to mere gasps. Goldsmith, on the other hand, appears to go out of his way to project an aura of Father Knows Best but often comes off as the feckless neighbor in Bewitched.

Thing is, San Diegans knew what they were getting with Filner—a confrontational, I'll-sit-on-you-till-you-cry-"Uncle" political pugilist schooled on the battlefields of the civil-rights movement. His formative Freedom Riders years—which he talks about like they happened yesterday—still clearly guide the 70-year-old Filner.

Goldsmith, on the other hand, seems to live a life that begins and ends with his self-proclaimed, long-standing love affair with the law. Even his Wikipedia page offers no glimpse into his youthful days growing up in New Rochelle, N.Y., instead jumping right to his educational background and his subsequent foray into local politics (Poway mayor, state Assembly member) and nearly decade-long stint as a Superior Court judge.

(The city attorney did let down his hair a tad at a recent Catfish Club luncheon when he admitted he's a huge Yankees fan and dreams of seeing games at every major-league baseball venue in America once he retires, particularly Boston's Fenway Park.)

But let's not kid around here. Both Filner and Gold smith possess gargantuan egos. Yet while the mayor would have proudly announced that, yes, it was he who put the thumb tack on the teacher's chair, the city attorney would likely have placed it there but then tried to get another kid in trouble over it.

As one astute political observer put it privately, "Bob Filner is the honey badger. He doesn't give a fuck what people think of his methods. Jan, however, is exceedingly concerned about his image. He's terrified—and I mean terrified!—of appearing weak."

In both cases, this can lead to what may be construed as dickish behavior. Belittling staffers appears to be one of Filner's flaws. Spin watched Filner harp on a couple of city employees for neglecting to produce a "No Parking in the Plaza" sign for last month's Plaza de Panama parking-removal press conference. It was more whiny than anything, but it was unnecessary given the monumental significance of the day. 

Goldsmith, in contrast, just seems to stumble into bad situations. His court exploits during the losing Plaza de Panama legal battle were frankly baffling (during one hearing, he turned to his legal opponents with outstretched arms in a pose reminiscent of the Karate Kid swan-kick stance), and Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor would have none of it.

While Goldsmith worries that Filner will tarnish whatever national reputation San Diego supposedly has, the city attorney gains international notoriety for the city by prosecuting a Bank of America chalk protester, then saying he was unaware of the case, then saying it's the defendant's fault for not taking a plea deal, which included the ridiculous requirement that the defendant surrender his driver's license for three years.

Now Goldsmith says there will be no more closed sessions of the San Diego City Council until the mayor makes nice with the city attorney's No. 2 guy, Andrew Jones, who received a police escort out of a recent closed session for what Filner described as "disruptive" behavior that Jones has strongly denied.

Logic would suggest that Filner and Jones do not get along, and while Filner haters—mostly folks who still can't believe Carl DeMaio lost to this guy—would love to see a new mayor, it would seem more practical for Goldsmith to provide another lawyer for such private sessions from the seemingly endless supply he oversees at the City Attorney's office.

But that would probably imply weakness on Goldsmith's part, so don't count on that happening anytime soon. Perhaps city leaders will be alerted to pending legal issues via Twitter from now on. Who knows.

Other than within the echo chamber, Spin Cycle gets the sense that many regular folks in town actually like Filner's penchant for upsetting San Diego's well-entrenched rotten-apple carts, and it should be noted that mayor-city attorney squabbles are nothing new.

In the Idaho resort town of Coeur d'Alene, a council member in March claimed the city attorney there had called him an "ignorant shit" in a private meeting over a $33-million wastewater-treatment bond.

In Seattle, federal oversight of reforms of the police department prompted the mayor to issue a memo earlier this year to the city attorney that the alt-weekly The Stranger described as "effectively castrating" the city's chief lawyer.

As the recent squabbles here in America's Wackiest City play out, it's a fair assertion that San Diego will survive.

How does Spin know? Let's take you back to 2005. The city's in the pits financially. A feisty city attorney by the name of Mike Aguirre is busy launching investigations and labeling certain city leaders "corrupt."

As the then-San Diego Union-Tribune reported, a certain mayoral candidate "hinted that if elected, there will be a new sheriff at City Hall—and his name will not be Aguirre."

"The people of San Diego voted for a strong mayor," Jerry Sanders said at the time, "not a strong city attorney."

Got a tip? Send it to johnl@sdcitybeat.com or follow John R. Lamb on Twitter @johnrlamb.


See all events on Friday, Dec 9