COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | CAROLYN CHASE

Choosing a city attorney

The four declared candidates for San Diego city attorney (Mike Aguirre, Deborah Berger, Leslie Devaney, Howard Wayne) will answer questions about their approaches to being city attorney on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 7 to 9 p.m., with a pre-event reception beginning at 6:15 p.m. at Otto Center Auditorium in Balboa Park (just south of the zoo entrance).

This event is free to the public and will be emceed by John Mattes of Fox6 News. It is co-hosted by the San Diego Sierra Club Political Committee, Public Policy Strategies, local attorneys David Watson and Courtney Coyle, and www.sdearthtimes.com.

The City Attorney's Office is low profile but high impact, having the legal authority to affect nearly every City Council decision. The office has a civil and criminal division. The civil division includes: Trial, Real Property, Public Works, Employment and Safety Services, and a Public Policy Team. The criminal includes: Consumer and Environmental Protection, Code Enforcement, Child Abuse and Domestic Violence and Neighborhood Prosecution. They also have "Special Projects" which includes a role in the ballpark and Chargers negotiations -- as well as other land use deals. What that role is and the types of both negotiating and legal advice is of utmost importance to all issues coming before the City Council with tremendous policy, fiscal and environmental ramifications.

What is the city attorney's role in the review of the city's California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) documents and "Development Agreements"? How is the city attorney involved in deals being negotiated behind the scenes between Development Services, Real Estate Assets and project proponents? The infamous Rocque de la Fuente case involved one of those district attorneys gone bad. Recently, community activists prevailed as part of a community lawsuit in Torrey Hills, where the judge cited over and over again, "arbitrary and capricious conduct" in bending over backwards to prevent any public hearing on a large expansion of a project. The city lost before a judge over their CEQA process of the relocation of the Rescue Mission.

Not only do all these situations cost activists time and taxpayers money, but there is a growing concern that the conduct of this office compels the public to have to litigate rather than having a fair and just process to begin with. Whether or not citizens are compelled to sue in order to get a fair process is something that activists are constantly battling. Sometimes we win in court -- but why should citizens have to sue to begin with?

The city attorney is elected in theory, so as to provide the public an independent check and balance on the use of power and authority and due process by city staff and City Council. But does the public really know this? Does the media report on this? Does the record reflect independence and the public good?

This evening is designed to give the public an opportunity to meet, hear and ask questions of the candidates for city attorney and is part of the Sierra Club's endorsement process which includes this public forum, a lengthy written questionnaire, and in-person interviews. Below are the candidates' 100-word summary statement provided to the Sierra Club for consideration.

Mike Aguirre

San Diegans need an independent, ethical and courageous city attorney who will work for the taxpayers, not special interests. We need a fiscally responsible lawyer to draft and enforce our city contracts and to help reform city government. No more sweetheart real estate contracts and backroom deals. Just honest representation to make sure the city's laws are enforced fairly. In court I have represented thousands of San Diegans in pension fraud, taxpayer recovery and environmental enforcement cases. I am proud to be endorsed by Donna Frye, Marco Gonzalez, Everett Delano and David Potter.

Deborah Berger

If elected city attorney, I will make the changes needed in the office, including:

- Developing a presence in the community.

- Assigning an attorney to monitor Development Agreements to ensure compliance.

- Pursuing polluters who have contaminated the San Diego River, such as Shell and Kinder Morgan.

- Assigning attorneys to review CEQA cases for legal adequacy.

I have spent 17 years in the office and have worked on the groundwater program, waste management, waste water and energy issues. I understand where the problems are and have the skill and determination to fix them!

Leslie Devaney

Too much of the business at City Hall is conducted behind closed doors, without meaningful participation or scrutiny by concerned members of the public. As city attorney, I will open those doors to the public by limiting closed City Council sessions to only those matters clearly permitted under the Brown Act, providing more detailed descriptions of items to be discussed in closed council sessions, and ensuring that council actions resulting from closed sessions occur in subsequent public sessions. I also believe the city attorney should be more aggressive in enforcement of storm water and grading regulations.

(Leslie is currently Executive Assistant City Attorney.)

Howard Wayne

I've been a member of the Sierra Club since 1987 and worked with it to pass District Elections for San Diego in 1988. From 1996 forward I received the club's endorsement for State Assembly.

I chaired the assembly's premier environmental committee and had a 100 percent environmental voting record. I authored the first law in the country for regular, statewide coastal monitoring and obtained funding for nonpoint source pollution cleanup. I funded San Diego-wide curbside recycling and wrote conservation easement protection legislation.

As city attorney I will use that office's independent litigation authority to represent the public and protect the environment.

While the media is content to fan the flames of higher profile races and issues, in the local trenches the race for city attorney is the most important competitive race on what will be a very lengthy March 2, 2004 ballot.

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