Convicted of nine federal corruption charges and stripped of his official powers, City Councilmember Michael Zucchet resigned from office Tuesday while vowing to continue his legal attempt to clear his name.
With his wife Theresa by his side, Zucchet, emotional and at times unable to vocalize his words, said goodbye to his constituents, his staff and a job he said he loved “more than anything in his life.
“For two years and two months I have vigorously rejected the idea of resigning from any part of the job that I was elected to do,” he said. “I feel the same way today, but my sincere interest to somehow stay in office while continuing to fight this injustice no longer seems possible.”
Zucchet's resignation comes one day after his attorney, Jerry Coughlan, told a swarm of reporters gathered outside the federal courthouse just moments after the jury delivered its verdict that Zucchet wouldn't resign. “He's not going to resign because if the judge were to grant a new trial, he would be reinstated immediately,” Coughlan said.
Zucchet, who took over as acting mayor on Saturday, avoided the throng, escaping from the courthouse via a parking garage where the mayor's chauffeured SUV was waiting to whisk him off to his Point Loma residence. Members of his staff said he had not been seen or heard from until Tuesday evening's announcement.
Before Zucchet's press conference, rumors were circulating that Ralph Inzunza, Zucchet's codefendant and colleague, found guilty on 13 corruption charges, will also resign this week. On Monday, Inzunza told reporters he would not resign, vowing to continue his legal battle.
“I will be back,” he said.
Inzunza's staff didn't return phone messages left at his office Tuesday.
At City Hall, pressure on the pair to resign started mounting shortly after the verdict, which resulted in visible shock and confusion and preceded a tense and truncated City Council meeting. Disorder quickly turned into indignation among Zucchet and Inzunza's colleagues and City Hall insiders.
A sense of urgency was added to their message as word spread that, by drawing out the seemingly inevitable, Zucchet and Inzunza could keep the election of their eventual successors from being consolidated with the November statewide election-costing the already cash-strapped city a bundle.
Acting City Clerk Joyce Lane said her office has worked on “all kinds of scenarios” because things have been “in flux,” and while some factors remain unresolved, the city charter, in effect the city's constitution, provides some guidance-most importantly that Zucchet and Inzunza's successors will have to be elected rather than appointed by the City Council.
“The charter mandates that the vacancy would have to be filled by special election if there is more than a year remaining in the term of office,” she said, noting that Zucchet and Inzunza's current terms are scheduled to end Dec. 4, 2006.
Lane said that without resignations, a special election would have to be held in February. However, with resignations, the special election could be consolidated, saving the city an estimated $400,000. That's money that, as last month's torturous budget process revealed, the city just doesn't have. In contrast, Lane said that a consolidated election would cost the city about $200,000.
Consolidation “would be possible if we knew of the vacancy right away,” Lane said. “We would have to close a nomination period on Aug. 11, so we don't have much time.”
Zucchet's resignation will clear the way for that process to occur in District 2.
On Monday City Attorney Mike Aguirre stopped short of calling for Zucchet and Inzunza's resignations but offered up his own plan to go around them in the event that they attempted to hold on to their offices.
According to Aguirre, Zucchet and Inzunza were effectively “suspended” under state law when the jury found them guilty, prohibiting them from attending City Council meetings, exercising the powers of their office and receiving pay and benefits. Citing the city charter, Aguirre said the City Council could vacate the seat of any member who misses more than 50 percent of City Council meetings in a single month by voting not to excuse those absences.
That “would then allow an election to be held in November to elect the replacements for District 2 and District 8,” he said. “I do believe it would be in the best interest of the people of San Diego to vacate these offices under the charter.”
Under Aguirre's plan, the earliest that could happen is July 26, which Lane said would provide enough time for the election to be consolidated.
But in an interview with CityBeat Monday, City Councilmember Donna Frye, who's also running for mayor, indicated she wasn't willing to wait, directing her message to Zucchet and Inzunza.
“It's time to move on.... I don't mean to be harsh about it, but it's over,” she said. “So please resign... and do the good citizens of San Diego a favor. We have listened to you. We have watched this whole thing unwind. We have watched the city go through this. OK. You got to make your case-you didn't. You wouldn't even testify. So now move on.”
City Councilmembers Toni Atkins, Brian Maienschein and Jim Madaffer also called for their resignation.
Zucchet's chief of policy, Don Mullen, who has worked with Zucchet for six years, told CityBeat it was physically painful to watch his boss resign.
“I feel like somebody just killed my child,” he said. “That's how deep it goes.”
Despite Zucchet's absence, Mullen said services to the district's constituents would not be interrupted.
“Staff will continue; the office continues,” he said. “The chief of staff is in control of the office and we will be under the supervision of the mayor pro-tem, whoever that ends up being next week.”