Because both past and present City Attorneys have given legal advice based on political motivations rather than an objective reading of the law, they have gotten the City into a lot of hot water and have cost the taxpayers a lot of money. Even worse, unlike lawyers like me who are in private practice, the City Attorney is not subject to malpractice lawsuits for giving bad legal advice.
Incumbent City Attorney Mara Elliott does not prioritize taxpayer protection. She might claim that she does, but talk is cheap. Her deeds betray her words.
Here are just a few examples of Elliott’s bad legal advice and bad judgment costing the taxpayers a fortune:
- After the required number of voters signed petitions to have SoccerCity and SDSU West put on the ballot -- so that the voters could decide the future of the Qualcomm Stadium site in Mission Valley -- Elliott filed lawsuits to block both measures from appearing on the ballot. If the City Council had been given competent, transparent, non-political legal advice, it would have never authorized the lawsuits in the first place; courts rarely accept pre-election challenges. Elliott’s bad legal advice cost the taxpayers nearly $600,000 because the City had to pay the winners’ legal expenses. (Full disclosure: I was one of the lawyers who intervened on behalf of voters to defend their right to vote. My share of the costs was less than $600.)
- In 2012, San Diego voters approved Proposition A to ensure that the City’s public-works contracts are subject to competitive bidding so that taxpayers get the lowest possible prices. In 2018, Elliott advised the City on how to go about soliciting bids for the new, multi-billion-dollar Pure Water program, which the City is pursuing to generate about one-third of our drinking water locally. Recently, however, a judge invalidated the solicitations because they violated Prop A. According to court documents, Elliott’s bad legal advice will cost taxpayers $4 million per month due to delays in construction.
- Also in 2012, San Diego voters approved Proposition B to bring down the costs of City-employee pensions. Prop B was immediately challenged by several employee unions, including the Deputy City Attorneys Association. The challenge went all the way to the California Supreme Court, where Elliott assigned her Chief Deputy City Attorney to defend the will of the voters against the unions’ lawsuit. Furthermore, she never asked the Mayor or City Council to waive any conflict of interest. Not surprisingly, the City lost the lawsuit and now taxpayers may have to pay tens of millions of dollars extra to employees. Adding insult to injury, while the lawsuit was being litigated, Elliott solicited and received multiple employee-union endorsements of her re-election.
- In 2004, more than 82% of San Diego’s voters amended the City Charter to guarantee the public’s right of access to information about how City officials are conducting the public’s business. 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. They learned about it only after her proposal was reported in the news -- and not surprisingly, they were very unhappy about what she had done. After I testified to the City Council about Elliott’s wrongdoing, its members voted unanimously to oppose the proposal. That same day it was dropped in the legislature.
- When running for election in 2015 and 2016, Elliott promised that she would enforce San Diego's prohibition against short-term vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods. Once she got elected, she reneged on that promise and refused to take action against them. The rentals have removed thousands of properties from the residential-rental market, where we already face a shortage, and are ruining the quality of life in our neighborhoods. Equally bad is the City's collection of trash from illegal vacation rentals for free, which the City Auditor recently reported is costing taxpayers millions in each year as illegal business subsidies and which Elliott refuses to prosecute. (Full disclosure: I represent taxpayers suing the City to prevent it from continuing these illegal subsidies.)
None of this would have happened on my watch.
As City Attorney, I will give the Mayor and City Council the same carefully considered legal advice that I give my private clients today. Unlike Elliott, who has spent the last 20 years as a government lawyer insulated from the malpractice consequences of bad, politically motivated legal advice, I will always give informed, transparent, objective legal advice to the Mayor and City Council with an eye toward minimizing litigation and taxpayer risk as much as possible.