As the City’s top law-enforcement officer, the City Attorney is charged with overseeing the City’s compliance with the law -- including open-government laws. Those laws guarantee the public’s right to see exactly what government officials are doing on the public’s behalf.
Throughout my legal career, I have been helping “watchdog” organizations and other concerned citizens get information from stonewalling, secretive politicians. Sadly, that means my clients have had to sue the City on multiple occasions because politicians were refusing to turn over information to which the public was entitled. My clients have even had to sue because the City Attorney’s Office refused to turn over public information.
Incumbent City Attorney Mara Elliott has been hostile toward open-government laws. Here are some recent examples of what she and her office have done to harm the public, avoid transparency, and celebrate secrecy:
- In February 2019, after the City Attorney’s Office suffered a series of defeats in court, Elliott attempted to secretly re-write the California Public Records Act without notifying the Mayor or City Council. Like the public and reporters up and down the state, the Orange County Register was outraged: "If the Legislature were a magic show, San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott would deserve an award for the dark arts in her skillful, albeit deeply disturbing, sleight-of-hand," adding that what she did "is the definition of a Vegas-style smoke-and-mirrors act." The Mayor and City Council learned about it only after her proposal was reported in the news -- and not surprisingly, they weren't very happy about it; they voted unanimously to oppose the proposal. That same day it was dropped in the state legislature. (Elliott’s attack on transparency is even worse given that more than 82% of San Diego’s voters amended the City Charter in 2004 to guarantee the public’s right of access to information about how City officials are conducting the public’s business.)
- In the latter part of 2018, Elliott was developing her plan to weaken the California Public Records Act. One of her deputies sent her an e-mail praising the fact that a new law to fine public officials who purposefully stonewall the public was not going to pass. (Full disclosure: I represent a watchdog organization that had to sue the City in order to get the e-mail. Elliott’s office did not disclose it even though it was the subject of my client’s request for public records. My client had to file a lawsuit and issue a subpoena to the legislature in order to get the e-mail.)
- In 2017, Elliott persuaded the City Council to adopt a policy to allow conflict-of-interest waivers requested by City lawyers to be approved in secret. A concerned citizen asked Elliott to drop the policy and instead put such requests on the City Council’s consent agenda for public meetings, but Elliott refused. When the concerned citizen asked Elliott’s office to turn over copies of previously executed waivers that the City had approved, the office refused to turn over one involving the San Diego Chargers and their efforts to stay in the City. The concerned citizen was forced to file a lawsuit to have the new policy invalidated and had to issue a subpoena in order to get a signed copy of the Chargers waiver, even though it was in the City Attorney’s e-mail system. (Full disclosure: I represent the citizen in her lawsuit to have the policy invalidated and to obtain the earlier waivers.)
None of this would have happened on my watch.
As City Attorney, I will adopt disclosure and transparency policies limiting the confidential work product from the Office to that which the law requires to be kept confidential. That way the public can participate as much as possible in the process of keeping the City honest. Even lawyers benefit from having input from others; good lawyers know that, invite that, and embrace that.