When the City Council was ready to vote on whether the firefighters should get a raise, City Councilmember Brian Maienschein was missing. When the city was finally able to accept a crucial, long-awaited report from its outside auditor, KPMG, he wasn't there, either. Where is Brian Maienschein, anyway? It's one of the most frequently asked questions at City Hall these days. No current officials would go on the record, saying it would be a breach of unwritten etiquette at 202 C St. to comment on the behavior of a fellow official. However, based on numerous interviews, the sentiment appears to be widespread.
'We call him on his cell phone, we call him at work, we call him at home-we can't find him,' said one City Hall insider. 'We don't know where he is.'
'I know where he is on council [meeting] days,' said another. 'But that's about it.'
CityBeat couldn't find him, either. Despite repeated calls for comment this week and last, no one from Maienschein's office called back.
Based on a review of minutes of City Council meetings from September 2006 through June 1, 2007, Maienschein missed large chunks of at least eight council meetings and missed roll call for parts of 12 others, more than any other council member.
Sometimes a council member prefers to shape policy through the committee process. But the committee he chairs, Public Safety and Neighborhood Services, was the setting for Police Chief William Lansdowne's misleading remarks on the state of crime in San Diego. No one on the committee, including its chair, cottoned onto the fact that Lansdowne's data was different from the data on his handout. Only when Voice of San Diego published its investigative report did anyone find out. The committee has met less often than any other committee, and it has had the fewest votes of any other, just six in the six times it met. Of those, only two recommended new policy to the full City Council. The next fewest, the Budget Committee chaired by Toni Atkins, voted eight times, but it met 22 times for eight hours a clip to address the city's budget woes.
'Committees are what you make of them. Look at Donna [Frye] and the Natural Resources and Culture Committee,' said another source. That committee has met nine times and voted on 19 action items (Maienschein is a member of this committee).
Even City Hall observers like San Diego State University professor emeritus Glen Sparrow and citizen watchdog Mel Shapiro barely track him.
'He's the quietest council member, I guess.' Shapiro said.
It wasn't always this way. Before he ran for City Council, Maienschein was an attorney with an appetite for public service. He became the volunteer executive director of Youth Court in 1998, a program in which teens acted as lawyers, judges and juries for minor offences committed by their peers. Then-Mayor Susan Golding liked the program so much she copied it for the city in 1999 and called it Teen Court. In 2000, at a youthful 30 years old, he ran to replace the termed-out Barbara Warden as the District 5 council representative. Despite having relatively little standing in the community, he defeated Tom Cleary, a former staffer for then-City Councilmember Byron Wear, and the well-funded campaign of former planning commissioner Karen McElliott.
Clint Carney, now a lobbyist for Southwest Strategies, worked with Maienschein on that campaign and became a policy analyst in the council member's office for much of his first term.
'He knocked on every door twice. He got to know people. He worked really, really hard,' Carney said.
Maienschein may have hit his political high-water mark in 2003, hours after firefighters gained control of the Cedar fire that swept through his district and much of eastern San Diego. Within a day, he had set up a fire-recovery office, and he kept it funded until last year. Community members still remember him fondly for that.
'He totally stepped up,' said David Berry, chairperson of the Miramar Ranch North Planning Committee.
'His staff is phenomenal to work with. Brian's done an outstanding job, and he's really sincere. It's hard to find that,' said another planning group chair, Marc Lindshield from San Pasqual-Lake Hodges.
Maienschein always prioritized constituent service, Carney said. Within his district, he still draws strong support for his focus on local issues. For Berry, it was Maienschein's doggedness in getting a jogging route around Miramar Lake reopened despite homeland-security concerns from the state. Constituents from other parts of the district have similar tales. The strategy of keeping politics local has worked for him: Maienschein ran unopposed for reelection in 2004.
So why isn't he around City Hall more?
Carney, who remains in occasional touch with Maienschein, said the council member has been dealing with family issues. Carney said both Maienschein's daughter and father-in-law have been quite ill this year. Among the absences, two are listed in the minutes of City Council meetings as for illness, and a third for a family medical emergency. The rest are unexplained.
Berry thinks he may be swapping time downtown for time in the district.
'Have you been to those meetings? Then you know what I mean.' Berry said, referring to City Council sessions.
Back at City Hall, one insider theorized that Maienschein still felt the singe from the votes he made that led to the city's employee-pension scandal and its current financial mess. Maienschein was among the council members who voted in favor of the resolutions that later caused the city to lose its ability to borrow money on the public markets.
'All of a sudden, he was being investigated by the FBI, the SEC, the City Attorney-maybe that all burned him out,' the person said.
In addition to those public institutions, the city hired the private firm Kroll Inc. to investigate how the pension scandal occurred. The final report called 'negligent' the five council members still in office from those days, Jim Madaffer, Scott Peters, Atkins, Frye and Maienschein. Local political observers believe the Kroll label could mark the end of the political careers of all but Frye, who might benefit from mitigating circumstances in the pension scandal and a glowing review in the Kroll report regarding a controversial sewer-rate vote.
Yet, still, in the period since the report, the rest of those council members have remained engaged. Frye remains a vocal critic of Mayor Jerry Sanders, Peters has been president of the council for two years running, Atkins chairs the extremely busy Budget Committee and Madaffer has formed himself into a kind of San Diego diplomat and is likely to become president of the League of California Cities next year.
Maienschein was once mentioned as a possible successor to shamed former Congressman Duke Cunningham and even potential mayoral material. But that seems like a long time ago.