SAN DIEGO — Sparks were flying during the San Diego City Council’s Rules Committee meeting Wednesday morning.
The fiery discussion stemmed from a ballot proposal that’s on the table to separate the job of the City Attorney into two positions: one would be an advisor for the City Council that is filled by an appointment; the other — called the “”Municipal Counsel” — would be elected to prosecute city misdemeanors.
While the Rules Committee was scheduled to consider the proposal Wednesday, Council President Sean Elo-Rivera expressed issue with the speed at which they were considering its sweeping implications. He said they only had a few business days to look at a memo from the City Attorney detailing the legal impacts related to the change before voting.
During his opening statements, Elo-Rivera said, “I do have real concern that attempting to untangle the many unrelated proposals included in the memo from the legal analysis we requested …. would lead to an unfocused conversation, so rather than risk that I would like to hit pause.”
The Council President moved to continue the discussion and not vote on whether to send it towards the full council during Wednesday’s meeting.
City Attorney Mara Elliot countered with a second memo after the meeting, explaining that the first report simply addresses issues the City Council should consider if the proposal goes forward. She added that Elo-Rivera’s comments during the meeting made it sound like the memo was too complicated to dissect.
The Rules Committee decided to continue to the discussion on another date — a move that did not sit well with everyone at the meeting.
“I think after having served in this role for seven years, the public deserves to hear what I think of the proposal — what you decide to put to the voters is up to you, but the voters deserver to understand what is being placed before them, that is our job,” Elliott said during Wednesday’s meeting. “I am getting the impression at this point that it is your intention to push me out of the conversation and as we’ve discussed before, I will not be silenced and I have a lot to say.”
According to Elo-Rivera’s office, the proposal was a citizen initiative that is aiming to get on the 2024 ballot. It was not brought up by City Council leaders. Gil Cabrera was one of the citizens who brought up the proposal. He ran for the City Attorney position in 2016, but lost to Elliott.
Gil Cabrerra could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Michael Aguirre, the former city attorney for the City of San Diego from 2004 to 2008, spoke during public comment. Elo-Rivera and Aguirre got into a back and forth, urging Aguirre to only speak on the continuance of the proposal. Aguirre responded with, “Young man, you are not a member of the California BAR,” and accused him of violating his rights to speak on the matter.
Aguirre said that in the 1930s, the legal community in San Diego was invited by the commission to give their opinions on whether the city attorney should be elected or appointed. The majority voted to have the city attorney elected, and not appointed.
Everyone who spoke during public comment was against continuing the item and against the proposal. Many people referred to the proposal as increasing the mayor’s power. Others urged the City Council to bring up the item soon to begin discussions.
City Attorney Mara Elliot sent a memorandum to Elo-Rivera Wednesday afternoon which read in part, “I am equally disappointed that I was not provided with advance notice of your intention to continue this matter, while the ballot measure’s proponents knew not to appear. Today’s hearing was scheduled two months ago without confirming that I could be available, yet I rescheduled my commitments to attend.”
In a statement to FOX 5 Wednesday afternoon, Elo-Rivera’s office submitted a statement which read in part, “I thought it was important for the Committee and the public to have more time to review those proposals and consider which items can be appropriately applied to this discussion and which may be more appropriate for separate discussion.”
Elliott said during the meeting that she has prior commitments during the Nov. 1 meeting and would not be available. It’s in the hands of Elo-Rivera to put this on the agenda again. An official date of when that will happen has not yet been announced.
“Most of the still living former City Attorneys and our current one support keeping the City Attorney office as an elected office,” political analyst Carl Luna explained of the issue. “They see the value of that and perhaps the council didn’t want to have to listen to that today.”
FOX 5 brought the issue to Luna to hear his thoughts on the issue, and the pros and cons of the elected versus appointed city attorney positions.
“The advocates say is it would produce greater transparency. You wouldn’t have an elected City Attorney at odds with the City Council, politics would play a lesser role their argument would be, and the city would have a more unified voice in civil matters. I’m not all that confident that’s a great argument,” Luna said. “The cons is the people lose accountability. I cant think of a time when the public had an elected office they voluntarily surrendered.”
Elliot’s term is up in 2024. If this proposal goes next year’s ballot, residents could be voting for a new City Attorney, and voting whether or not to change the office. Luna called it a potential “bait and switch” for whoever would be elected.