Dec. 7 2011 11:25 AM

But we're not just going to take the city attorney's word for it

Jan Goldsmith
Photo by David Rolland

Good for San Diego City Councilmember Todd Gloria for challenging City attorney Jan Goldsmith on Monday. With Goldsmith watching the City Council meeting on TV from his office, Gloria questioned whether the city attorney could be counted on to provide unbiased legal advice on the so-called Comprehensive Pension Reform initiative that will go before San Diego voters sometime in 2012.

The basis for Gloria's concern was Goldsmith's participation in a press conference this past April announcing the campaign to collect enough signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. CityBeat was there that day and asked Goldsmith why, in light of his campaign pledge in 2008 to steer clear of policy matters as city attorney (distinguishing himself from then-incumbent Mike Aguirre), he was violating that vow by actively supporting a major policy overhaul. He told us he was supporting the initiative as a private citizen, not as city attorney. When he saw Gloria questioning his professional honor, Goldsmith hurried across the Civic Center Concourse to defend himself. From the council's dais, he said he knows how to separate his personal opinions from his legal analysis.

That may be true, but Goldsmith will have to pardon Gloria and others who consider the pension initiative too highstakes to make that leap of faith. The measure would put an end to the traditional pension for all new city employees except police officers, replacing it with a 401(k)-style plan, and impose a five-year freeze on the portion of all current employees' pay that's factored into a formula that determines what employees will earn in retirement.

Goldsmith said his support of the initiative is meaningless. If that's true, why did he bother showing up at that press conference in April? If that's true, all he's done is force members of the city's legislative body to question his ability to be impartial and, as a result, cost the city the money it will take to hire outside lawyers to give the City Council a second legal opinion. The truth is, it's not meaningless. Goldsmith's support tells voters: “Hey, that smart-sounding city attorney guy thinks this measure is a really good idea.”

If Goldsmith saying he's acting as a private citizen rings a bell, it's because it's the same tune coming from Mayor Jerry Sanders, who explained to CityBeat last week that pension-reform proponents chose to go the citizen-initiative route in order to avoid negotiating with the unions that represent city employees. “You do that so that you get the ballot initiative on that you actually want,” he said. “Otherwise, we'd have gone through meet-and-confer [negotiations], and you don't know what's gonna go on at that point through the meet-and-confer process.”

Labor leaders believe Sanders' involvement in the initiative triggers negotiations with unions under state law; Sanders says he's just another citizen supporting a citizen-sponsored initiative that sidesteps the trigger. In any case, it's underhanded to do an end-run around the unions by exploiting the envy of voters who don't have the kind of retirement security that public-sector workers have. Sanders' message: Let government workers scrounge for scraps when they're old like everyone else. But not him—he'll be fine. So will Goldsmith.

Anyway, the issue of Goldsmith's bias came up Monday amid a larger argument over whether the initiative would be placed on the June ballot or the November ballot. Councilmember Marti Emerald led a move to put it on the ballot in November because more voters show up during general elections than during primary elections and because it would save the city $150,000. Councilmembers Kevin Faulconer and Lorie Zapf scoffed at Emerald's reasoning, saying that if it were consistently applied, no initiative would ever be placed on a primary ballot. The implication was that Emerald wants the initiative on the November ballot only because many more Democrats will vote then, when President Obama will be up for reelection—the June ballot will draw more conservatives to the polls to choose a Republican presidential nominee. Conservatives are more likely to vote in favor of the pension initiative.

Of course that's why Emerald wants it on the November ballot, and she should come right out and say it. And, she should add that placing it on the November ballot would bug the snot out of Carl DeMaio—which is reason enough to do it. For DeMaio, the initiative goes hand-in-hand with his mayoral campaign. Liberal politicians voting to hold the election in November is no different from DeMaio, Faulconer and Sanders scheming to position it for June.

So, please, spare us the righteous indignation.

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