The fall of Mike Aguirre

(From today’s CityBeat)

OK, don’t get excited, loyal and dedicated Aguirre bashers. I don’t mean to imply that Mike “Agonistes” Aguirre is finally down for the count. There’s plenty of pluck left in—and public support left for—San Diego’s embattled city attorney. Yet, from failed lawsuits to his flaming fire fears, bad headlines have been dogging Aguirre constantly since the dog days of summer. And Aguirre hasn’t passed up many opportunities to throw additional fuel on the fires, either. Which has all come together to make the fall of 2007 the autumn of Mike’s discontent. The big question now is: Will his stumbles this fall translate into the ultimate fall from political grace in next year’s election?

This past spring, Aguirre was a civic hero for taking on the Sunroad “damn the FAA, full speed ahead” corporate juggernaut and forcing it to back down on (and de-build) its Kearny Mesa Tower of Terror. But then Mike had to go off quarter-cocked and accuse Mayor Jerry Sanders of corruption in the matter, destroying any last vestige of bonhomie with Sanders or his supporters. Sure, his Honorableness took campaign money from Sunroad and then took actions that seemed to try to help the beleaguered company out of its bind, but you don’t call that being corrupt—you call it being a politician. Meanwhile, Mike’s pension-recall lawsuit was largely recalled by the courts while he was lambasted for blowing millions of dollars on fruitless litigation.

Then, as a hunk of Mount Soledad decided to relocate, Mike the Meddlesome popped up on TV, basically saying the city government he was supposed to represent might be legally liable for the event, earning him the castigation of the City Council and the mayor (who stripped him from jurisdiction in the matter), the media (OK, the U-T) and every anti-Aguirre armchair lawyer from here to Temecula. The U-T followed up with a charge that Aguirre illegally accepted illegal campaign contributions from staffers he gave raises to (though the paper has since retracted that charge). His call for the mayor to evacuate the entire city in the early days of the October inferno provided even more ammo to those saying Aguirre is playing with half a legal brief. And now comes word that the State Bar is nipping at his heels, investigating him for reasons unstated with consequences unknown—about which, though, his detractors are more than willing to speculate. Oh, and along the way he takes wild pot shots at KPBS for being an agent of the U-T.

(Psssst, Mikey: That investigation of KPBS because they put “Bowtie Bob” Kittle on too many times for your taste—how’d that work out for you? What’d say we don’t do anything like that again between now and next June, OK, buddy? Beating on KPBS for being conservatively biased is like kicking Grandma because you think her sugar cookies are a little tart.)

Sure, there are justifications for many of his actions—even the egregiously obnoxious ones. The millions he spent challenging pension benefits are dwarfed by the billion-plus underfunding of the system by the City Council. The Sunroad mess did smell like Mission Bay after a sewer spill. (Pop quiz: What do you call it when a former bigwig in the city Planning Department becomes a highly paid veep for a developer and then the city green-lights a project for the developer that the FAA labeled hazardous? In San Diego, it’s called business as usual.) Even his stance on the landslide might have had legal advantages in the long run for the city.

But politics is as much about perception as reality, and the perception, carefully framed in the media by the anti-Aguirristas, is that Mad Mike is a cross between Rasputin and a paranoid Dick Nixon off his meds, wreaking civic havoc wherever he goes. Now, when such criticisms were largely confined to the editorial pages of the Union-Trib, Mike could shrug them off as the rantings of the media bastion of the San Diego power elite. But when criticisms of his, shall we say, somewhat erratic leadership style begin popping up in places like and even CityBeat, he might just take notice.

Similarly, when he faced the prospect of only second-tier challengers for next year’s race, he could rest easy, knowing his opponents didn’t have the candidate to put where their critical mouths were. But now Alan Bersin is toying with entering the race and respected local judge Jan Goldsmith is ready to throw his robe into the ring. Both bring a level of gravitas—and political support—to the race that the others hitherto lacked. All of these contenders promise to end the ongoing municipal melée between the city attorney, City Council and mayor. They promise to return San Diego to the days when the city attorney represented the government in legal matters—rather than investigated or sued it.
And therein lies the big significance of next year’s election.

The central tension between Aguirre and the rest of City Hall is not just a matter of the man and his personality. It’s a fundamental matter of whom the city attorney serves: the municipal government or the People of San Diego. Aguirre’s detractors argue that his role is to represent city government: protect it from exposure to lawsuits, minimize liabilities and not tell the council and mayor what they should or shouldn’t do but, instead, tell them how they can do what they want to do. Like Casey Gwinn did for the council on the pension issue. And look how well that turned out for the People of San Diego.

Aguirre thinks that, since he’s elected by the People of San Diego, his job is to put their interests first. So when landslides occur in La Jolla, his first thought is not how he can minimize the liability of a city government that might have acted with incompetence or negligence at the expense of citizens injured by said actions. He thinks his job is to find out the truth of the matter and hold City Hall accountable to the People. Yeah, his approach might make the city pay out more money in lawsuits at taxpayers’ expense. But it might also make City Hall more cautious and efficient so as to avoid doing dumb things—like approving a hazardous high tower and then being on the cuff for the cost of reducing its size or voting in favor of unfunded pension benefits in return for political support.

At the county level, this issue has long been settled. The County Counsel’s office acts as the county government’s lawyer, and the independently elected District Attorney is empowered to hold all county entities, private and public, accountable before the law. Maybe that’s the ultimate solution to the flaw Aguirre has so effectively, if, at times, obnoxiously, pointed out in municipal government. Maybe, while San Diego debates the strong-mayor issue, its residents and politicos might debate restructuring the office of the city attorney, dividing its responsibilities between a city counsel that represents the government in civil litigation and a city attorney empowered to hold both the people and government of San Diego legally accountable for their actions.

Barring such changes, voters are left to choose between the old way of having the city attorney being the lapdog of the mayor and City Council or the Aguirre way of constant conflict. Neither have been particularly successful models.

But I still think the Aguirre approach, independent of the man, better serves the interests of the People.

Meanwhile, Mike, you need a makeover between now and spring. No more using the “C” word (as in “corrupt”) to describe fellow elected officials unless and until you have enough real evidence to take to trial. No more threatening the local media with investigations every time you don’t like their editorial content. Oh, and try not to file suit against Santa for being overtly partisan—you know, bringing presents to only the good kids and all that.

It’s time for a kinder, gentler, less angry, less reactive Mike to emerge. Fake it, if you have to.


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