San Diego City Hall's Dec. 6 inauguration ceremony began as a dry affair. The reelected City Council members delivered speeches that touted their successes and minimized their failures, and the audience at Golden Hall replied with polite applause. But when Mayor Dick Murphy introduced new City Attorney Mike Aguirre, the crowd erupted.
"Our new city attorney is Mike Aguirre. I'm looking forward-" Murphy began before being cut off by a burst of cheers, hoots and shouts of "I like Mike!"
Aguirre's failed in runs for public office almost a half-dozen times, but this year was different. In 2004, he campaigned for the office of city attorney on a platform of honest and open government. He presented himself as a political outsider who would restore a lacking integrity to city government. The public responded well to the platform, and in his inaugural address he didn't shy away from reaffirming his commitment to his campaign promises.
"Today San Diego is confronted by the most serious legal and financial crisis in our history," he told the roughly 1,000 people gathered for the event. "My duty as your city attorney requires I use this first occasion to speak the truth, frankly and boldly, about the legal causes of our financial difficulties."
Then, unlike those who spoke before him, he recited the litany of problems besieging the city: FBI, U.S. Attorney's Office and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigations into the city's dismal finances. The absence of an annual audit-delayed because of allegations of fraud. The retirement of the former city auditor and city manager. And the fact that the city is paying millions of dollars to private law firms in connection with the problematic audits.
"Respected members of our community have argued that some city officials have adopted a legal strategy that pits the city against the FBI, U.S. Department of Justice, the Securities & Exchange Commission," he told the audience. "The city attorney's office will not remain on the sidelines and watch San Diego slide deeper into the financial abyss."
Aguirre received the day's first standing ovation from his supporters in the crowd. But many city employees, including many in Aguirre's new office, remained seated. Everyone knows Aguirre represents big changes-changes that will challenge the status quo.
After the event, Aguirre was hounded by reporters. TV cameras and microphones were thrust in his face. The swarm around him wanted names and specifics-not the generalities that he offered in his speech. Which city employees lied in financial disclosures? Who paid their legal bills with city money? Aguirre told the journalists they needed to be patient.
"The public has a right to know every detail of this investigation," he told the throng. "And they will."
By the time Aguirre escaped the reporters, Golden Hall's atrium was filled with scores of friends and family who came to see the new city attorney sworn in. For the rest of the morning, Aguirre was pursued like a bride at a wedding. With all the pictures to pose for, hands to shake and hugs to receive, there wasn't much time for work. But the following day, he hit the ground running.
During his first week in office, the city attorney aggressively began to institute the "fundamental shift in policy" he said he would bring to the office. Over the first five days, he devoted most of his energy to jump-starting his independent investigation into allegations that past and present city employees withheld information about the pension-fund deficit from federal authorities. And there was plenty more to keep him busy.
He reinstated the office's public-integrity unit, declared he would forgo taking his own pension benefits and started naming names. Last Friday, in response to media inquiries-which were in response to Aguirre's inauguration speech-he announced that City Councilmember Michael Zucchet, current Deputy City Managers Bruce Herring and Pat Frazier, former City Manager Michael Uberuaga and former Auditor Ed Ryan have all used city funds to pay lawyers in connection with a city-sponsored investigation of the pension mess. The firm hired by the City Council to investigate problems with the pension fund, Vinson & Elkins, is also representing the city in the SEC investigation.
Aguirre doesn't categorize the Vinson & Elkins investigation as a "whitewash" but said it didn't resolve all the questions he has about the pension problems. He said it would have been preferable if the firm had not investigated the city while simultaneously representing it, but he won't call it a conflict of interest. Nonetheless, he won't be satisfied until his own investigation is concluded.
It was a big week. Add on the compulsory meetings with office and city department heads, and it was a very big week. But it's nothing Aguirre didn't expect. He knew he wouldn't have much time to relax in his first couple months.
While Aguirre doesn't openly admit it, he also spent his first week irritating some people at City Hall. Zucchet, for example, said publicly that he doesn't think Aguirre's investigation is necessary. But Aguirre doesn't see his work putting him at odds with the people he's accountable to-the public.
"I had a tremendously positive reaction [to the speech] from every different level of the community, with some notable exceptions of people who are directly invested in the pension-plan problems," he said in an interview with CityBeat. "The voters themselves have made a judgment to put somebody in office who isn't interested in business as usual, who's not going to create any more hiding places."
Aguirre added that his job isn't to be uncontroversial-it's to be an independent city attorney and help restore the city's credibility.
"San Diego's reputation has taken a real beating in the last couple years," he said. "We need to communicate with the rest of the country that we've cleaned up our problems and we're doing well again. We can't do that unless we actually clean up the problems."
By Saturday afternoon, Aguirre was still grinding on. He traded in his suit for faded jeans and a cornflower-blue button-down shirt, but he was still very much on the clock. Earlier in the morning he met with outgoing City Manager Lamont Ewell. Later he met with the La Jolla Democratic Club.
Aguirre can't slow down because he said there is more to do next week and he wants to keep his word to the press and the public and keep releasing as much information about his investigation as he can.
"I have 24 hours [today] to do the best I can, and I'm going to do everything I can until midnight tonight," said Aguirre amid piles of unshelved books and stacks of papers in his office. "I don't know how long I'm going to last here, but during the time I am here, I'm going to do as much as I can to get it right."