For however long the city of Chula Vista has had a City Attorney, he/she had been appointed by the City Council. And if my memory of the last 45 years is not too far off, every single appointed City Attorney that I can remember, with one exception, has been fired or asked to leave. As an outsider, this seemed kind of strange -- when the City Attorney doesn’t tell the Council what they want to hear, they fire him, and get one who will?
Then in 2004, Michael Aguirre was ELECTED to be City Attorney in San Diego. The next four years were fascinating to watch. Aguirre fired some of the attorneys, hired his own guys, started holding press conferences right and left, went after the juguler in San Diego’s pension scam, and in the process seemed to make the Mayor an every Council person mad -- BUT THEY COULDN’T FIRE HIM -- WHAT A GREAT SYSTEM! He was truly independent to do what he thought the City Attorney should be doing.
So in time, the citizens of Chula Vista voted to change our Charter so that we, too, would have an elected City Attorney. An election followed, and Mr. Googins became our first elected City Attorney. The beginnings of disillusionment didn’t take long.
Strike one: At the time, the Council was in contract negotiations with the Chula Vista Police Officers Association. This was a closed-door, affair, of course. Now one Councilman, Rudy Ramirez, had been a councilman for four years and had a brother on the Chula Vista Police Force. They lived in their separate homes with their own families, had no financial connections whatsoever, and no one ever suggested that Mr. Ramirez would have to recluse himself from such talks. But newly elected Councilwoman Pat Aguilar has a son on the Chula Vista Police Force, and while they too live in separate homes, and have no financial connection whatsoever, Mr. Googins said she had a conflict of interest and would have to sit out in the hall during negotiations with the POA. That has never been explained
Strike two: Three years ago, someone concocted the idea to have our motels raise the Transient Occupancy Tax by 2 1/2%. The proceeds were given to the Chula Vista Chamber of Commerce, and they were to use the money to put “more heads in beds.” After three years, the Chamber has been given almost one million dollars, but they were unable to document putting even one “head in a bed.” In fact, it appeared that most of the money went to pay salaries of the Chamber staff. Nevertheless, they wanted to renew the contract. The city staff prepared a new contract, and they, including the City Attorney’s office, recommended that the Council approve the new contract. Now before Mr. Googins became our elected City Attorney, he had a private law practice in Chula Vista, and was an active citizen in our community, including being active in the Chamber of Commerce. Was his office now recommending to approve the new contract with the Chamber because it was a good idea, or was it because it would help keep his former organization in business?
Strike three: Chula Vista has an Ethics Committee to which complaints about ethical behavior by city officials can be submitted. The Ethics Committee operates under the supervision of the City Attorney’s office. What happens if someone submits an ethics complaint against the City Attorney?
And no matter how upset or concerned the Council gets, they can’t fire the guy! So previously, many had seen the disadvantage of the “appointment” system as it was too easy to fire the guy. Now, the disadvantage of the “elected” system was manifesting itself in that you cannot fire the guy.
Thus Proposition C.
Prop C would maintain the elected City Attorney, but it would allow the City Council itself to hire an outside attorney to advise them if they were concerned or uneasy with possible conflicts of interest by the City Attorney. At present the only funds available to hire outside attorneys is under control of the City Attorney.
Thus maybe, just maybe, we can have the best of both systems.