The long-brewing tensions at City Hall broke wide open Wednesday as San Diego Mayor Bob Filner interrupted a press conference of City Attorney Jan Goldsmith to accuse him of “unethical and unprofessional conduct” for opining to reporters about legal affairs before first talking to the mayor or City Council.
“The city attorney doesn’t recognize his role as an attorney,” Filner said, taking over Goldsmith’s podium. “His role is to provide confidential legal advice to me and to the City Council. This [calling a press conference first] without notifying me or the council is unethical and wrong.”
A flustered Goldsmith responded by saying “I disagree with whatever he said.”
Although the Democratic mayor and Republican city attorney have been at odds for a while, the current dispute revolves around how to handle $30 million worth of funds generated by the city’s Tourism Marketing District. Filner has been refusing to distribute the funds until a contract can be signed between the city and the district that covers such issues as hotel employees’ wages and whether the money can be used to fund city services.
After Filner talked to reporters about the funds on Tuesday, Goldsmith decided to speak out against views he thought were on legally shaky grounds. At 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, he spoke bluntly about several of the key issues the mayor had raised. He described the mayor’s view that the funds constituted a “tax” rather than a “fee” was “clearly illegal” and charged that some of Filner’s other proposals were under the umbrella of the City Council rather than the mayor’s office.
“The mayor can advocate or veto policies, but he can’t unilaterally impose policies, just like I can’t unilaterally impose policies,” Goldsmith said.
Not long afterwards, Filner and several of his staffers entered the conference room uninvited. Goldsmith had not informed Filner or the City Council that he would be holding the conference. When he was pressed for why he had not done so, Goldsmith said he was merely responding to newspaper articles -- interviews with Filner -- that he believed inaccurately portrayed the issue.
“If you read the newspaper and saw something you had a problem with, you should have called me up and notified me,” Filner said. “It would have been nice to have a city attorney acting as a legal counsel. An attorney is supposed to confine his advice to his clients -- the mayor and the City Council -- and not to exceed his authority or breach professional ethics.”
Goldsmith responded that he felt he had a duty to speak out “when I see something that is not right.”
Both men accused each other of acting like former City Attorney Mike Aguirre, whose term was punctuated by periodic disputes with former Mayor Jerry Sanders.
“You accused the previous city attorney of not acting like he was subject to the mayor and City Council,” Filner said, referring to Goldsmith’s successful political campaign against Aguirre. Under his breath, he added, “This is just like Mike Aguirre.”
A few moments later, Goldsmith gave his parting shot: “We used to have a city attorney who wanted to be mayor, but now we have a mayor who wants to be city attorney.”
Aguirre, who is now a partner at the Aguirre, Morris & Severson law firm, was amused by the dispute.
“It’s like the worst thing that they can call someone is Mike Aguirre,” he laughed.
Aguirre said these types of disputes have been popping up ever since the city attorney’s office was created in the 1920s.
He added that one of the two biggest lessons he belatedly learned from public office is that “every elected official has a right to participate in the mosaic of public life, so you have to recognize each other’s authority.” Aguirre said Filner should learn to respect Goldsmith’s role as city attorney and “Jan has to respect that the people of San Diego elected Bob as their mayor."
The other lesson was that the city attorney can’t be seen as tampering with public policy.
“If I had to declare which one is the most like the myth of Aguirre -- which was never as bad as some people made it out to be -- I’d say that Jan might be getting a little too involved on the policy side,” Aguirre said. “But on the other hand, Bob is getting involved on the law side. I could try to crown one of them as the most Aguirre-like, but I’m guessing they may shoot way past that in the next couple years.”