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Gwinn goes negative on Aguirre as city attorney race shows tension

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San Diego City Attorney Casey Gwinn has begun to openly attack potential successor Mike Aguirre in letters to constituents and now in the media.

Gwinn, who supports his longtime deputy Leslie Devaney for the elected post, wrote to selected residents June 9 that Aguirre's "political agenda" will "wreak havoc on the legal affairs of the city" if he is elected. In the letters, Gwinn pleaded with many to support Devaney's campaign with the largest contribution possible.

And in an interview with The Daily Transcript June 25, Gwinn described a vast inventory of reasons why he felt like "chaos" would ensue if Aguirre replaces him instead of Devaney. Aguirre's political ambitions have led him to a skewed interpretation of the role of the city attorney, Gwinn said.

Many of the 340 employees he oversees are scared of what Aguirre would change, Gwinn said. Some wouldn't work for him, Gwinn said.

"One of our real estate attorneys, in fact, just left to take a position in Chula Vista," Gwinn said.

But that attorney, John Mullen, who started in the city attorney's office just after law school in 1992 and became a prominent lawyer in the city's land-use litigation section, denied that he left because of Aguirre's candidacy.

And although Gwinn said that the office is experiencing an unprecedented potential shakeup of its personnel, others point out that Gwinn himself replaced some staffers and re-interviewed everyone when he took over after the 1996 election.

Gwinn said he made his plea to San Diego residents now because he was concerned about the office.

"It's not personal. I don't even know (Aguirre) personally. I just don't believe he's qualified. He doesn't have a grasp of municipal law issues at all," Gwinn said of Aguirre, who won 46 percent of the vote in the March primary compared to Devaney's 28 percent.

Aguirre later gained the endorsement of Deputy City Attorney Deborah Berger, who came in a close third in the race.

"Mike has tapped into the kind of anti-city mood that exists in a portion of the community. But what the city needs now most of all is a professional lawyer running that office, not a politician -- not a perennial candidate. When he talks you'd think the city attorney runs city government," Gwinn said. "I don't think the office should become some kind of experiment for an inexperienced lawyer to come and run."

The comments were indicative of the already edgy tenor of the debate between supporters of Aguirre and Devaney that began before the March 2 vote and has heated up again with still four months remaining before the candidates' next appointment with voters.

Aguirre has been a frequent critic of Gwinn's administration and has blamed many of the problems the city faces on his leadership. Devaney and Gwinn argue that most, if not all, of the controversial problems the city faces are results of decisions made by the City Council.

Gwinn said he understands that an elected city attorney should provide an educational role for the public on occasion. He said, in fact, he wishes he had spoken out about how detached his office was from the city's beleaguered pension fund.

"I wish that I had been much more public as an example on the pension stuff -- explaining the role of the city attorney and why we weren't the lawyers for the system," he said. Decisions by city leaders led the fund to reach a point where its liabilities now dwarf its assets by more than $1.1 billion, according to recent analyses.

That was a policy issue, Gwinn said. And the City Council is in charge of setting policy for the city.

Aguirre, a consumer fraud attorney, maintains that the prosecutorial power vested to the city attorney would give that person many tools to keep the City Council in check.

"If all you did was occasionally speak out, the council would know that they could do something illegal and that not only is the city attorney not going to do anything about it, but that he or she will help them get around the law," Aguirre said during a previous interview.

Gwinn sees it differently.

"Mike Aguirre has threatened to sue his client if his client doesn't follow his advice. He's tried to recant that statement, but a lot of people heard it. The thought of a lawyer suing his own client is absurd," Gwinn said.

Aguirre, however, stopped short of returning Gwinn's volleys.

"It's very important for me to maintain a professional relationship with Mr. Gwinn because I may be going through a transitional period with him and I have no interest in getting involved in a dispute with him in public because he is not a candidate. He is not my opponent," Aguirre said.

Aguirre did complain about Gwinn's inability to keep Mullen from going to Chula Vista.

"John Mullen was doing the work of a number of different lawyers. He was a backbone in our land-use section. I just wish we would have made more of an effort to keep him," Aguirre said.

Mullen said he left his position under the city attorney of San Diego because of economic considerations more than anything else.

"I thought it was a better opportunity for me and my family. It is a chance to enter a new field of law and better economic deal for myself," Mullen said.

He said that while he knew of some colleagues that were worried about the election, it did not affect him.

Asked why Gwinn might have thought he left because of the potential for Aguirre to get elected, Mullen said he didn't know.

"I don't want to contradict him, but we never had a detailed discussion about why I was leaving. He may read into it that I was worried about the future of the office -- many attorneys are, but I wasn't," Mullen said.

Gwinn said he planned to walk the halls of his office more than usual as the election approaches.

"Just to say thank you to the people here for what they do. I don't do that enough. People are scared and concerned. I'm trying to provide support for them," he said.

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