Don't you find it bizarre that the sizable, noisy anti-Mike Aguirre crowd hasn't yet found a high-profile candidate to run against the controversial city attorney in next June's election? I sure do.
So far, his opponents are lawyer Dan Coffey, who's most famous for really hating Aguirre and who finished a distant fourth in his 2005 bid for the District 8 City Council seat (he got 1,601 votes), and William C. Gentry Jr., a deputy district attorney who's most famous for--well, actually, he's not famous for anything; I've never heard of him, and neither have you.
I've pretty much given up hope for an Aguirre-Scott Peters grudge match. Alan Bersin, former San Diego schools chief and current Airport Authority chairman, would be a formidable candidate, but his possible candidacy so far is mere speculation. The election is still eight months away, so I suppose there's still time for a big name to jump in, but the mayoral and City Council races have begun in earnest, so a meaningful city attorney campaign is conspicuously absent, and I'd think that anyone who'd stand a chance against Aguirre would have to start raising money soon.
The election is on my mind because my faith in Aguirre, which regularly advances and retreats, has been in serious retreat recently. The opinion that city attorney is not an appropriate role for Aguirre had begun to harden in me. Without a doubt, he wants it all. He wants to be a corruption fighter and a policy maker. Sometimes, when he's holding community meetings and publicly advocating for this legislation or that, he acts like a mayor. Sometimes, when he's grilling city staff or city-paid consultants, he acts like a member of Congress in a committee hearing. Sometimes he acts like the U.S. attorney general. And, too frequently he acts as if the more mundane, traditional work of a city attorney is beneath him.
Aguirre says that isn't true, that his staff does a superb job with day-to-day business, and, of course, he argues that because the city attorney is an elected position, he serves the citizens of San Diego, and not just the mayor and the City Council. I've quarreled with him repeatedly over whether or not someone can effectively represent the city of San Diego and the citizens of San Diego, given that Aguirre believes that the city is often not acting in the best interest of the citizens-indeed, that's what his initial campaign was about.
And he was right. San Diego will have a hard time paying its bills as long as it remains a low-tax city, but its financial problems were greatly exacerbated by a mix of corruption and incompetence on the part of city officials who engaged in shady dealings that resulted in city-employee pension benefits the city could not afford, got the city in trouble with federal securities regulators and for years has quashed the city's ability to finance improvements to its deteriorating infrastructure. Much of the blame lies with Aguirre's predecessor, Casey Gwinn, who, to put it as mildly as possible, was derelict in his duty to keep the city out of trouble-and, therefore, he was complicit in the corruption.
Aguirre has staked his legacy on ridding the city of hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of employee-pension liability. It's a righteous cause, one that CityBeat has thus far supported. If successful, Aguirre would single-handedly get San Diego back on track and would be remembered for being a hero who never strayed from his crusade in the face of unrelenting attacks from a growing army of political opponents.
Problem is, his effort to date has flopped. His failure was the subject of a big story by Alex Roth in last Sunday's Union-Tribune, the centerpiece of what probably was Aguirre's worst week ever in the press-he's also drawn heat for his response to the Mount Soledad landslide and for requesting a police escort through horrendous traffic to Pacific Beach, where a water main broke and flooded the landscape.
On first read, Roth's story was a devastating indictment of Aguirre's performance. It chronicled the amount of money the city attorney has spent (into the millions) on his legal battle and reported various missteps Aguirre has made. It also dredged up complaints about Aguirre's alleged 'My way or the highway' leadership style and featured anonymous commentary on his eccentricities--such as his use of a speech from Shakespeare's Henry V as a motivational tool and what was portrayed as an obsession with historical American political figures.
First of all, I once played the French herald Montjoy in a Shakespeare-in-the-park production of Henry V and can attest to the play's motivational potential (so lay off!). And, yes, Aguirre loves talking about Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Jack and Bobby Kennedy and others, but I find that an endearing quality-the United States would be a much better place if more public officials were so informed about our nation's history.
As for the substance of Roth's story, it was largely one-sided, but that's not entirely the reporter's fault-while there are lawyers Roth could have contacted who've worked with Aguirre and who'd say kinder things about his legal prowess, Aguirre himself declined an offer to be interviewed for the piece. For better or worse, Aguirre's not a fan of Roth and predicted it would do no good to participate. He instead offered Don McGrath, his second-in-command.
Interested in his side of the story, I interviewed Aguirre this week for nearly an hour and a half and asked him to respond point-by-point to Roth's piece. It's perhaps unfair to tell you that without laying out each and every response, but space in this paper doesn't allow for a detailed dissection. I'll sum it up this way: As he usually does, Aguirre had answers for everything. He conceded one particular point but said subsequent events had rendered the point moot. His fundamental reaction was that he and his underling lawyers have recovered more money through claims against past city consultants than he has spent on litigation. And the final chapters in the saga of his quest for the holy grail-elimination of what says were ill-gotten pension benefits-haven't yet been written. Yes, he lost the big battle at the trial-court level, but he believes he's well-positioned for an appeal, which has been filed. In addition to the legal arguments his team has made, he notes that the city won the $150 million Roque de la Fuente case on appeal, and that District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis just last month won a battle on appeal in her criminal case against six officials who played a role in the pension-benefits deal.
I, for one, will wait until his case is fully adjudicated before passing judgment on Aguirre's performance in the mother of all performance issues.
Of course, that still leaves hanging the matter of whether Aguirre is the right man for this job. Without a doubt, he's a mixed bag. For example, he was largely right on the Sunroad building controversy, but his investigation into KPBS (see Page 10) was a kooky waste of taxpayer time. He's way too quick to label people 'corrupt,' but his policy forums are often valuable public services. While his questioning of witnesses-er, people-during City Council meetings can be tedious, it sometimes yields interesting information.
I often think Aguirre is better suited as a member of the City Council-or mayor. Unlike other sitting elected officials, he has a clear vision of what a city government can and should do for its citizens. But if he were a member of the City Council, with only one vote at his disposal, he wouldn't be in a position to challenge the pension benefits that have hamstrung the city.
After our meeting this week, I parted ways with him at the entrance to City Hall, where he was about to participate in an important discussion about water. We were talking about the conflict between representing the city and representing the citizens. He asked a good rhetorical question: 'What's the alternative?'
Would I rather have someone like Aguirre or someone like Gwinn as my city attorney? That's easy: Aguirre. Can there be a middle ground? That I don't know.