Dec. 9 2008 05:55 PM

A eulogy for departed City Attorney Mike Aguirre


True to my prediction of four years ago, Mike Aguirre has become San Diego's version of the mad Florentine monk Savonarola: Having incited the locals to burn down the Downtown power establishment, he finds himself instead burned at the political stake. His legion of detractors, however, from the U-T editorial pages and blogs to the front office of the Chargers to the halls of City Hall right to Jerry Sanders himself might well find they will ultimately rue the day of Mad Mike's fall. For now whom will they blame their many failings on?

No longer having Aguirre to kick around, Gentlemen Jerry and the City Council may also find that the only thing that's kept the political peace in San Diego for the last four years was their shared fear and loathing of the now-former city attorney. Sanders first tried to triangulate with Aguirre against the council, then teamed up with the council against Aguirre. With Mike gone and all the financial problems hanging over the city, watch the mayor and council turn on each other like rabid and ravenous professional politicians.

Let us not underestimate or minimize the degree to which Aguirre mauled himself. By most accounts, his management of the City Attorney's office was closer to Humphrey Bogart's helmsmanship in the Caine Mutiny than E.G. Marshall's stewardship in The Defenders. His inability to focus on any one project long enough to see it to completion, whether it be run-of-the-mill civil litigation or major investigations left him long on rhetoric but short on accomplishment.

Meanwhile, the promised centerpiece of his litigation empire—the lawsuit to roll back pension benefits—only served to alienate Aguirre from what could have been a political alliance with the municipal unions and gave the U-T a weapon to shoot at him with. That Jerry Sanders said the lawsuits needed to proceed and be resolved before he could take any actions to solve the pension problem somehow has been wiped from the pension narrative. With new City Attorney Jan Goldsmith ready to drop the litigation, the U-T's question should be: So what's the new pension plan, your honor? Instead, no doubt, the paper of record will congratulate Goldsmith for saving millions of dollars by dropping litigation aimed at saving hundreds of millions. C'est la vie.

And then there was Mike himself. Or, specifically, Mike's mouth.

Aguirre seemed to have reinterpreted Thumper's Mother's advice as: “If you can't say anything nice about someone, go out of your way to kick them as many times as you can.” Aguirre was San Diego's little boy who cried corruption so often that even when corruption seemed to be evident (pensiongate, Sunroadgate) the press and much of the public rolled their collective eyes and said, “There he goes again.”  What Aguirre forgot was the Occam's razor of municipal government: Never claim corruption and conspiracy when simple incompetence will suffice.

Aguirre actually had a higher view of the city's leaders than most common folk did. Presented with the incredible screw-ups on every thing from sewer systems to development deals, most San Diegans simply threw up their hands and said, “What d'ya expect from those clowns.” Aguirre was actually charitable enough to assume that city officials—both elected and appointed—were smart enough to know what they were doing and that failings were actually intentional subversions of the public good. His constant maligning of multiple maleficent municipal malefactors, however, eventually fell flat in the face of the depressingly low level of competence San Diegans have come to expect from their municipality.

Yet the real irony in the case of Mike Aguirre was that, no matter how flawed the messenger may have been, his fundamental message—that the city was heading toward, be it by incompetence, corruption or cowardice, a fiscal Armageddon and no one on the council (with the exception of Darling Donna Frye) or the Mayor's office was willing to even so much as admit how bad things were, let alone take proactive steps to head off disaster—was quite correct. Indeed, Aguirre is even more correct about the state of the city leaving office in defeat than when he entered it in victory.

Between 2000 and 2004, the city became the municipal version of the Titanic, slamming full speed into the pension-fund debacle. Over the last four years, under the stalwart stewardship of two mayors, two acting mayors and scads of city managers and CFOs, the city backed up and then slammed full speed ahead into that iceberg again. And again. This time the ship might finally sink.

As Aguirre recently claimed, the pension-fund deficit, around a billion-and-a-half dollars when he arrived in office, is probably closer to $3 billion today. Back in 2004, the city was in the middle of good times, with the markets and tax revenues on the rise. Today, the city, like the rest of the country—and the world—is in a recession heading toward depression, which means any hope of riding this out without making painful cuts are simply delusions or deceits.

The City Council might want to hold off voting to ban plastic shopping bags. What will hundreds of city employees put the contents of their desks into when they are, let us say, sent on extended permanent furlough (what shall they call “firing you”? Let them count the ways) once the full financial plight of the city is realized? Keep a few branch libraries from closing? By this time next year, the council may be selling the library's books on eBay for spare cash and wondering how to keep at least a few police stations open. Citizen Aguirre thus leaves office as he came in, with the name of his cherished boyhood sled, “Bankruptcy,” on his lips.

That Mike Aguirre leaves shallow footprints on city politics is in part due to his own personal failings but more because so many of the city's movers and shakers worked so hard to brush him away. His attempt to turn the City Attorney's office into something of a Tribune of the People is now being rolled back, much to the relief of the city establishment.

Safely ensconced at last in his new digs, Jan Goldsmith is ready, true to his word, to take the office back to the halcyon days of Casey “Pension Underfunding? Sure We Can Do Pension Underfunding” Gwinn.

Just how will Ferret Man Jan deal with the next Sunroad? Or the next (as in current) pension underfunding scheme?

Will Goldsmith continue any of Aguirre's quixotic adventures, like efforts to force Kinder Morgan, the corporation that owns the tank farms by the stadium, to finally make good on its legal responsibility to clean up the Mission Valley aquifer contaminated in a fuel spill 20 years ago? Given that Goldsmith campaigned on the platform to turn the City Attorney's office back into the legal mouthpiece of the mayor and council, one can only imagine the answer.

Meanwhile, the changing of the guard at 202 C St. is now complete. The last four members of the City Council's gang of seven (the gang that voted the city into its current fiscal failures starting in 2000) have been turned out, as well, though, in these cases, by term limits and not voter vindictiveness.

And thus it's a final irony that, with the exception of Dick Murphy (who cheated a public-recall hanging with his own political suicide), Aguirre is the only elected San Diego official to pay any price for a lack of success in public office in recent memory. The troika of Toni Atkins, Brian Maienschein and Jim Madaffer may be, as yet, unspecific about life post-council, but we should all sleep well at night knowing that there's probably a nice public sinecure or private partnership awaiting them somewhere. Sanders, meanwhile, having coasted to easy reelection, can now hear wafting whispers of his name on the lips of Republicans desperate to find someone to run for governor in 2010.

Only Aguirre comes out of this miserably mauled. But take heart, Mikey. Your principal public antagonist, the U-T, is on the sales block. And your political antagonists like Peters and Sanders may well see their political shelf lives shrink to that of overripe mangoes given the financial fury facing the city. Indeed, it is unfortunately possible that your dourest predictions of municipal collapse might yet come true. Like the mad monk Savaronola ranting against the corruption of the De Medicis, you may end up vindicated in the end.

And the citizens of San Diego may find themselves saying in a few years—or months—“If only we'd listened to that obnoxious Mike Aguirre.”    

Write to and


See all events on Tuesday, Oct 25