Recently, San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith surprised the CityBeat editorial staff by inviting us for a no-questions-barred interview and blocking off three hours for it. The cordial offer came from Goldsmith's right-hand man, Assistant City Attorney Paul Cooper, who said via email that question topics could range from "legal" to "policy" to "personal."
In recent years, news media have regularly featured Goldsmith at or near the center of City Hall drama. Whether cast as the conservative foil to former Mayor Bob Filner's progressive crusading, the ally of powerful special interests or a level-headed legal mind, the city attorney is one of the city's most powerful and talked-about political players.
One of our key questions was: How do Goldsmith's political beliefs affect his professional decisions as the city's top lawyer? Less than 10 minutes into the interview, before CityBeat could pose the question, Goldsmith brought it up.
"Let me just open by saying that when I ran in 2008, one of the things I said—and I've said over and over again, and I try to follow it—is that we do our legal work based upon the law and not politics," he said.
Goldsmith, who'll turn 63 this month, has had a long career, both legal and political. Becoming a lawyer in 1976, he focused on business law until 1990 when he was elected mayor of Poway. Two years into the job, he resigned to become a member of the state Assembly, where he served three two-year terms. Between 1998 and 2008, he was a San Diego Superior Court Judge.
In 2008, San Diego residents elected Goldsmith over incumbent Mike Aguirre as their city attorney, a job that straddles the line between politics and law.
On the Friday of the interview, wearing faded blue jeans and a Chargers jersey—which he joked was an office requirement of "iMayor" Todd Gloria—a chatty and cheerful Goldsmith was ready to wax philosophical on the rewards and challenges of being an elected city attorney.
"I think there's an incredible merger of two systems that are, in some ways, like oil and water, and it's a real challenge to keep them separate," he said. "If you're a good judge, you learn to have your opinions, and you learn to keep them out of your decisions, and I thought I was pretty good at that.
"Coming over here, it's a little different. You can still keep it separate, but you're in the political environment, and you're in a fishbowl. So if somebody doesn't like your opinion or what you've done, and they're an activist or an advocate, immediately they seize on that and say, See, that's political.'"
That the city of San Diego has become a hotbed of partisan bickering and conspiracy theories, Goldsmith said, was the reason he called CityBeat for the interview.
"Well, guys, we haven't talked in a long time, and I do think there's a lack of communication in our town," he said. "Despite all the multitude of communication outlets, sometimes we really don't communicate with each other.
"I'm getting a little concerned about the conspiracy buffs," he added. "And I'm not saying you guys. I'm not saying you're like that, but the conspiracy buffs that [say] behind everything there's some big conspiracy. So I thought it would be a good idea to talk to someone who I think is reasonable."
An increasing lack of objectivity in the media has also added to the situation, Goldsmith said. "There's a lot of the media that has become the politicized media, like, you know, the Voice guys," he said, referring to nonprofit news website Voice of San Diego. "It's like they see the world through a prism, and it's political.
"If I'm going to put something out, I'd really like at least somebody who's going to give it a fair shake from the standpoint of what we say rather than a spin," he added.
A quiet Cooper, wearing a black plaid button-down—which he presciently quipped was worn in mourning of the Chargers' soon-to-be-over playoff season—also attended and recorded the interview. Cooper, who checked his iPhone regularly through stylish horn-rimmed glasses, became part of the conversation only briefly when Goldsmith was asked if he was "grooming" his assistant to be the next City Attorney.
Cooper looked slightly uncomfortable as Goldsmith said, almost inaudibly, "not now."
Goldsmith said he's not preparing anyone to be the next City Attorney. "This is a tough job," he said. "To do it right, it's a tough job. [Former City Attorney] Casey Gwinn just kind of sat back and let things happen, and we got into trouble."
CityBeat asked if former Deputy City Attorney Andrew Jones' abrupt resignation this month was due to frustration over not being groomed for the job.
"Can I tell you something?" Goldsmith said, flashing an icy glare that quickly melted into a sunnier disposition. "If Andrew Jones would have run for this office, I would not have run for reelection. I wanted Andrew to run."
Jones was thrust into the media spotlight last year after former Mayor Bob Filner accused him of leaking information to the press. Filner had Jones removed from a closed-session City Council meeting in June that became very public.
"Andrew Jones would have made a terrific City Attorney," Goldsmith said. "He just doesn't want to do it. People are not political. Let me tell you, I tried."
Goldsmith said he didn't know why Jones was retiring and quickly changed the topic. "Yeah, it's his personal decision to retire—just like I retired. Did you know I retired in 1988? I was in a private law practice doing real well."
Throughout the interview, the city attorney talked freely about his opinions on specific city policies, as well as his broader political beliefs.
"I like the less-government and all that, but not to a total extreme," he said. "I'm more libertarian from a standpoint of people's rights."
Goldsmith said he didn't have an official role in the local Republican Party, but he is a member. "[E]very once in a while, I'll go to their meetings, and I'm a Republican by choice. I used to be Democrat. At one point, way back, I was an objectivist. You know what that is? Libertarian. That was Ayn Rand morphed into libertarian.
"I [don't] necessarily agree with all what Republicans do," he added. "I didn't like George W. Bush. I really like Mitt Romney. I used to like [New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie."
Is it confusing for the public when someone in his position openly expresses political views?
"Do I do that? Have you seen me even endorse a candidate for mayor?" he said. Goldsmith then quickly answered his own question: "I did last time, by the way, at the end—one statement. Yeah. But you don't see me out there raising money or advocating things."
In contrast, Goldsmith said he views his predecessor, Mike Aguirre, as having inappropriately used the office for political advocacy.
As the city attorney, "there is a level of some independence," he said. "Not as far as Mike went. But that's why I used to say during the 2008 campaign, Sometimes you're going to say no to a mayor.' Mike hated this when I said it. By the way, we're friends now. We have a lot of fun together."
Drinking several cups of coffee and sucking on countless cough drops, Goldsmith enthusiastically defended the impartiality of his legal opinions.
"There's things I do well and things I don't," he said. "One of the things I do do well is being able to separate, Here are my views; here's my law practice.' And that's completely separate. Examples come out the kazoo."
To illustrate, he pointed to his office's legal work instituting the strong-mayor form of government, which he said he dislikes.
"We drafted the proposition that would extend it, and we did the impartial analysis and all that, but did I vote for it, to extend it? No. Should I have spoken out? I don't know. What do you think? Think I should have spoken out? I don't know?"
Perceived as a way to enhance accountability, a voter-approved initiative in 2004 instituted the so-called "strong mayor" form of government, which made the mayor the city's chief executive and gave the position sweeping administrative authority. Under this form of governance, the city's top bureaucrats report directly to the mayor, not the City Council.
"Now, with this strong-mayor form of government, do you even know who the city manager is?" he added. "The charter's not clear, but there's also a chief operating officer. And now we have an assistant chief operating officer. We have four deputy chief operating officers. And all of the instructions are where? In private, behind closed doors."
CityBeat asked Goldsmith about his legal stance on a lawsuit alleging deception on the part of a referendum campaign to overturn a zoning-plan update in Barrio Logan. He recently wrote an op-ed in U-T San Diego that lauded "direct democracy" and the referendum process; the commentary came after interim Mayor Gloria asked the City Attorney's office to join the lawsuit opposing the referendum. The City Council passed the zoning plan but was forced to move forward with the referendum that would repeal it because critics of the plan gathered enough petition signatures. Because the City Council placed the referendum on the ballot, the city was named as a defendant.
There's no basis to join the lawsuit other than to find a way to "undermine the referendum process," Goldsmith said. "The reason I wrote the op-ed is because we were getting a lot of pressures to do exactly that. I mean, people were coming from council, letters from the standpoint [of defending] the City Council, join in a lawsuit against the proponents of the referendum and be proactive."
It's yet to be determined whether the referendum will be thrown out based on allegations that paid signature gatherers lied to voters in order to convince them to sign petitions. However, Goldsmith pointed to a recent judge's decision that found there wasn't enough evidence to grant a temporary restraining order to stop the referendum process while the legal battle plays out.
Goldsmith, whose office is defending the city in the lawsuit filed by opponents of the referendum, said he had no opinion on whether signature gatherers had lied and added that his office may have been able to investigate the claims had the issue been brought to his attention sooner.
"The opponents of the referendum, if they wanted the city's involvement, rather than use all this political pressure, what they should have done, frankly, is come to us, behind closed doors, and provide the evidence to us and say, What do you think?'" he said. "We would have had our lawyers research that and see whether the city should be involved."
Lawyers with Coast Law Group, who represent the referendum opponents, said they brought concerns to the City Attorney's office weeks before filing the lawsuit.
Goldsmith responded via email to a follow-up question on the topic: "If they did [contact our office], it was not brought to my attention. But that is not surprising since [Deputy City Attorney] Sharon Spivak advises the city clerk and gets complaints / issues from all sides whenever there is an election. Sharon and her team do a good job and do not get the city embroiled in political issues."
Goldsmith, who's taught as an adjunct professor at three San Diego law schools, used the conversation to talk about his appreciation for the history of direct democracy, specifically the initiative process.
"Direct democracy is a big part of my course," he said. "And we have long discussions about that because it's different than what direct democracy was around the turn of the century.
"I love the progressive movement around the turn of the century, when they stuck it to the big corporations through direct democracy," he added.
Specifically, he mentioned his adoration for the 21st governor of California, George Pardee, who was famous for having stood up to the powerful corporate leaders of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
In San Diego, the special interests are "unions" and "business," he said. "Folks in the neighborhoods feel left out."
When asked if he thought the referendum process had been hijacked by special interests, Goldsmith said: "I do think that initiatives and referendums have gotten to the point where people can get these things on the ballot through spending for it, and that has strayed from the original purpose of the initiative and referendum. And I do think that we do need to take a look at that. How do you do that, though?"
It's important to protect a citizen's right to question and oppose government, Goldsmith said. As an example, he said he regrets the way his office handled the so-called "Chalk-U-py" case that made national headlines last summer.
"We try to use the discretion because it's a protest case," he said. "It wasn't treated like a protest case. It was treated like a typical gang-vandalism-graffiti case, and that's where we went wrong."
The City Attorney's office brought 13 misdemeanor vandalism counts against Jeff Olson, who used water-soluble chalk to write anti-Wall Street slogans on public sidewalks outside of corporate banks. A jury found Olson not guilty on all charges. Goldsmith said he didn't know about the case until it went to trial.
"I could [stop it], but how do you exercise the discretion at that point?" he said. "It was already prosecuted. Protest cases ought to be handled differently from the beginning, but by that point, it was kind of too late."
The jury's decision to ignore the law and exercise a process known as jury nullification "was done right," he said. "We were technically right on the law, but that's not the way to handle a protest case, and we're going to do better."
As with many topics, Goldsmith talked openly about his support for pension reform in San Diego but stressed that his political beliefs haven't colored his legal opinions. "Do I have political views? Yeah," he said. "I have political views. Do they matter in my law practice? No."
In 2012, San Diego voters approved Proposition B, which froze for five years city employees' so-called "pensionable pay"—the portion of an employee's pay that's factored into the employee's pension—and replaced defined-benefit pensions for most newly hired city employees with something akin to a 401(k) plan.
In the run-up to the vote, Goldsmith said he remained neutral. "I actually didn't fight for it," he said. "I appeared in one press conference [to announce the launch of the Proposition B campaign] where [former City Attorney] John Witt was there, and I thanked John Witt for being there. But, yeah, I voted for it.
"In fact, the idea of a pensionable-pay freeze was something that I proposed to the unions publicly as part of a global settlement before Prop. B even got on the ballot," he added.
In an effort to keep the proposition off the ballot, the Public Employment Relations Board sued the city, alleging that former Mayor Jerry Sanders didn't properly negotiate with municipal employees before bringing the issue to voters. Goldsmith issued an opinion defending Prop. B and entered into a legal battle that's still playing out today.
"You won't see me involved in anything else on Prop. B," he said. "I try to temper what I do. If I'm going to take a position on something, you're not going to see me raising money. You're not going to see me doing all that stuff. I'll speak out. I'll say a few words, and that's about it. If I was a judge, I wouldn't say a word, keep it to myself. I'm not to that level, but I try to use some discretion."
One of the toughest situations Goldsmith said he's ever had to deal with was the scandal that led to the resignation of former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner.
"It was about the most uncomfortable position I've ever been in in law," he said. "You have information that's coming from the 11th floor that is disturbing. I'll just keep it at that."
While Filner was "tough to deal with," the former mayor did some "good stuff" during his time in office, Goldsmith said. However, after allegations of sexual harassment started to surface last summer, the City Attorney's office had an "obligation to investigate," Goldsmith said.
"I know a lot of people didn't like it, and that's where the conspiracy people said, Oh, from day one, he's been out to get him.' I actually like Bob. I met with him last week. I like him. I always have. I don't like his problem. He's got a problem, which he's dealing with."
In a November Los Angeles Times story, Tony Perry quoted Goldsmith as saying: "We strategized as lawyers: How were we going to remove the mayor? It was a de facto impeachment." Asked to clarify that, Goldsmith said: "I didn't take down the mayor. Our job had to do with the legal aspects of it, and that's it."
Goldsmith reiterated his support for Filner's personal growth. "Let's just say, Bob Filner was not just abusive towards women. He was abusive towards a lot of people, including me, and including my lawyers, anybody he viewed as a position of some type of authority. He's dealing with that, and I hope he gets better, and I think he will, personally."
Goldsmith said he didn't request the interview that resulted in Perry's article. "No. We were having breakfast. Believe it or not, I get together with people I know in the media."
After spending more than three hours discussing civic policies and legal opinions with the City Attorney, it wasn't hard to believe that he regularly hobnobs with folks in the news media.
"You guys are a pleasure to talk with," he said with a smile. "I appreciate your questions, but I know you're out to ream me. Whatever. It is what it is. I don't really care."
As we walked out of the office, Goldsmith continued chatting, recounting tales of driving a cab in New York and other such anecdotes. Cooper chuckled and showed us to the door.