Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and little children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville-mighty Casey has struck out.
In the famous 1888 poem by San Francisco Examiner columnist Ernest L. Thayer, Casey is a mythological behemoth of a baseball player on whose bat tens of thousands of rabid fans rely and, ultimately, are disappointed. About the only similarity with San Diego's own Casey-lame duck City Attorney Casey Gwinn-is the disappointment.
Over the years, Gwinn has issued annual reports that tend to shine a most glowing light on the inner workings of the city attorney's office. The reports overflow with phrases like "dedicated public servants," "hardworking men and women" and "massive responsibilities." The 2003 report, unveiled last week, is no different. But while Casey the ballplayer went on the offensive, albeit unsuccessfully, Casey the city's supposed top legal mind now relies heavily on the defensive.
"The city," Gwinn wrote, "is facing major fiscal and policy issues, candidates for City Attorney are regularly making misleading and inaccurate statements about the office, and the public discussion is focusing on a handful of matters instead of the diversity of the work of one of the largest law offices in San Diego County."
Well, sorry that the public seems transfixed on such matters as a ballooning city pension crisis that is decimating financially strapped San Diego's ability to finance its future. Or on a City Council that is consistently escorted into the dark recesses of closed sessions to talk about major issues that, in the end, could cost this city hundreds of millions of dollars to rectify.
The biggest gripe heard about Gwinn-other than his apparent inability to separate his love of church from his well-documented disdain for the public process-is his uncanny knack for taking city law and twisting it into his own brand of pretzel logic. A massive cross on public property or a near-free public-parks lease for the homophobic Boy Scouts seemed right as rain to our outgoing city attorney, but not to the fair-minded justices who ripped holes in Gwinn's arguments.
"This office should never be defined by a handful of hot political issues or the current political winds," Gwinn continued. This flies in the face of the position itself, an elective office that finds itself consistently thrust into the maelstrom of public debate, whether Gwinn likes it or not.
"To be sure, in recent months, virtually every ill of the city has been blamed on the City Attorney's office by one critic or another," the defiant one wrote. "But the vast majority of the city's problems are not legal issues. Most of the major problems are the result of policy decisions by the prior mayor and prior city council members."
It's understandable that Gwinn clings to this tack, considering the millions of dollars spent by the city on outside attorneys of late who are supposedly doing the heavy lifting on such legal conundrums as the Chargers' lease, the appeal of the $94.5 million judgment against the city in 2001 favoring developer Roque de la Fuente and the recent DeAnza mobile-home park debacle. The truth is, even though some members of the City Council are themselves attorneys, it is still a panel whose majority frequently trips over their legal feet in favor of their most loyal political suitors, most often land-hungry developers.
What is so refreshing in this turbulent political season is the hope of coming change-that the storm clouds and darkness shrouding most of the city's questionable legal maneuvers, from the Naval Training Center land giveaway to secret meetings with SeaWorld owner Anheuser-Busch, will soon give way to the bright light of public participation and understanding. The City Council would do well to bask in the sunlight when it comes.
Shapiro targets CCDC
Speaking of letting the sun shine in, longtime local activist Mel Shapiro has filed suit against the San Diego City Council and the city's nonprofit downtown redevelopment arm, otherwise known as the 12-year-old Centre City Development Corp., claiming the agencies have schemed over the years to keep the public in the dark about eminent-domain litigation.
Shapiro contends that the City Council is shirking its duties by allowing the non-elected CCDC Board of Directors handle the negotiations when a property owner facing eminent-domain proceedings is sued by the City Council, which becomes the San Diego Redevelopment Agency for such matters. Eminent-domain, or condemnation, efforts have been used frequently downtown, including most notably for property within the ballpark district. In theory, such owners are entitled to the fair market value for their property, but oftentimes property owners feel shortchanged.
"When you decide you're going to condemn a property, the council does vote because CCDC says, "Well, we offered this guy this much money and he wouldn't take it, so we're coming to you [the council] for permission for filing an eminent-domain lawsuit," Shapiro explained.
But even though the City Council, acting as the Redevelopment Agency, is the plaintiff in such proceedings, it's CCDC that has met in closed sessions to negotiate the land deals. Shapiro claims that role legally belongs to the City Council, not the CCDC board, and therefore is a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state's open-meeting law.
Shapiro said the CCDC board on "numerous" occasions has held closed meetings-with city attorneys present-where property owners are offered more money for their property, they accept and the city is told to write a check.
"But the City Council didn't tell them to write this check or settle a lawsuit," Shapiro said. "I can point to one case where a property owner got a $500,000 increase, another case of a $700,000 increase-and the council didn't approve it!"
CCDC board attorney Helen Holmes Peak questioned the validity of Shapiro's contention, arguing that CCDC is the city's agent in eminent-domain proceedings downtown. "The purpose of CCDC is to conduct redevelopment activities on behalf of the [Redevelopment] Agency," she said.
Shapiro also claims in his lawsuit that CCDC has been remiss in making meeting agendas available to the public in the requisite 72 hours prior to the meeting. Peak said CCDC is trying to work out those kinds of "glitches," including the possibility of posting those agendas at City Hall, where the board meets.
Tell us where some of the other glitches are: spincycle@SDcitybeat.com.