City Attorney Jan Goldsmith four years ago walked into an elected office being paid an unusual amount of attention.
Before him, it was occupied by Mike Aguirre, who had turned it into the most politically inflamed seat in the city. Goldmsith promised to get the City Attorney's office in order, to tone down the rhetoric, and to build an apolitical and professional law firm whose client happened to be the city. It’d be a one term stay, he said, and then he’d move on.
He later decided to stick around for a second term, saying he didn't view his initial statement as a campaign promise. No one opposed his re-election bid, so he walked through the June primary to another four years in office.
He and his wife aren't ready to retire, he said, and he enjoyed the City Attorney’s office too much to leave.
“Public employees get hit a lot in today's world, but they ought to meet these people,” he said.
He says he spent those first four years professionalizing the office, as promised, and stepping in to hold up a red flag whenever the city was pursuing policies of questionable legality. That's the role his office is supposed to hold and the one he pledged to recapture, he says.
None of this means the former California Assemblyman, mayor of Poway and San Diego Superior Court judge hasn't been a part of San Diego’s recent high-profile political fights. In fact, the tension between his stated desire to stay above the fray, even as an elected figure, is beginning to define his time as City Attorney.
On Proposition B, the just-passed initiative that puts non-police hires into a 401(k)-like plan and attempts to freeze city salaries for five more years, Goldsmith appeared at an early press conference supporting the plan, then being pushed by Mayor Jerry Sanders, Councilman and mayoral hopeful Carl DeMaio and Councilman Kevin Faulconer.
He says he moved to include one specific provision in the initiative, the “substantial equal” lawsuit that would make the city and employees share the pension system's investment risk, but was otherwise removed from its drafting.
“That was not my job, and I do not practice law outside the City Attorney's office,” he said. “But can I offer an opinion on it? Sure! I have a First Amendment right.”
Since its passage he's continued his support by moving for swift implementation despite pending legal challenges. He held a press conference the week of the election, flanked by public supporters of the bill, and outlined his plan to get the new retirement system up and running.
“To be perfectly clear, I don't think Prop. B is that difficult to implement,” he said. “This isn’t space science. We aren’t looking to go to Mars to establish a colony. This is stuff that has been done before.”
He said at the press conference he was ready to depoliticize the heated issue. Asked if holding a press conference with the bill's supporters was helpful to that aim, he said the event was open to the public, assumedly suggesting opponents were free to attend as spectators.
Despite an apparent contradiction between his approach to implementation and his desire to get away from the politics of Prop B, he says he's sympathetic to city workers’ ongoing concerns.
“There's a feel with employees that we keep moving the goalposts, and I agree that we need to have finality, that we need to say ‘this is what we want from employees,’ and mean it,” Goldsmith said.
For him, finality would come in the form of the global settlement he's twice proposed, once in early 2011 and again during the recent press conference. Labor leaders handled the initial talks tentatively before dropping out, while claiming the city never made a settlement offer. They were ambivalent to the second proposal.
But Goldsmith points to other news-making issues as evidence that he's steered the city clear of legal trouble, even if it meant impeding the mayor’s agenda.
“Before (Aguirre), the City Attorney office was a go-along-get-along type of operation,” he said. “And (he) was right to change that, he was right to get agitated. Before (Aguirre), the culture was ‘gee if they want to do it, just let them do it.' He was right, but then he made it worse by destroying the relationship between the client and the attorney.”
He tells his attorneys to intervene whenever they see a legal issue facing the city, he said.
Assistant City Attorney Mary Jo Lanzafame said the office's attorneys feel that empowerment, but it isn’t about getting in the way of the City Council or mayor’s processes.
“You have to be able to meet with the client early, identify legal risk and concerns to work through the process,” she said. “In the end, and this is the case with all lawyers, our role is to identify concerns and legal risks, and make sure whatever risk the client takes, that they're fully informed.”
On the controversial convention center expansion ó funded by a property tax on city hotel owners, voted on not by the general public but by the hotel owners themselves — Goldsmith prior to the City Council's decision to allow the vote said the plan was legally tenuous. After its approval, he filed a motion for legal clarification.
He said the city is testing the boundaries of the law and that he felt the need to step in when “people were running around town saying it was fine and purporting to speak for our office.”
The city will be lucky to have a ruling in the next year, he said.
“Chances are very good that if the city is successful, the other side will appeal so that there's precedent and because this is a novel issue,” he said. “Get comfortable. Sit back and enjoy it, if you want to test the law.”
But Marco Gonzalez, an environmental attorney with Coast Law Group who has publicly clashed ó and has come up with a series of legal victories to show for it — with the city on the environmental effect of La Jolla's fireworks display, said Goldsmith is an ideologically motivated lawyer whose advice increasingly puts the city at legal risk.
“Jan Goldsmith, when he held elected office, he would have been a tea partier if it had existed at the time,” Gonzalez said. “He reflects a conservative libertarian viewpoint, notwithstanding the platitudes offered about the independence of his office.”
An ex-Democrat, Goldsmith has said he came to the Republican Party when Ronald Reagan was elected president. Gonzalez says he can't find even the specter of liberal thought in Goldsmith’s positions on labor law, environmental issues, social justice or open government.
“There aren't any inflammatory responses like we saw with Aguirre, but a guy who gets up in court and seems to put his past as a judge out there to influence a sitting judge, that reeks of the cronyism and backroom dealing that liberals abhor,” he said.
With four more years ahead of him as City Attorney, Goldsmith now has to decide if this term will mark the end of his political career.
He says he felt left out of campaign season while running unopposed. He offered to debate himself, partly so he could talk about the changes he's made to the office and partly because he wants to hear public feedback on the job he’s done.
“I was like a kid, with my nose up to the candy store window, and I couldn't go in,” he said.
So does that mean he'll be looking for another office after his second term, one where he’ll be sure to experience one more campaign?
“I haven't given it any thought,” he said. “It depends on where the challenges are. A lot depends on what my wife wants to do.”