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City Atty. Backs Away From Signing Letter

San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre said on March 9 that he’s all in favor of fostering a cooperative spirit at City Hall, but he’s not about to “be painted into a corner.”

At issue is a letter signed March 8 by a majority of City Council members, pledging to refrain from public sniping against other city officials over the city’s pension problems. Councilwoman Donna Frye, 6th District, like Aguirre, declined to sign her name, preferring to keep her freedom-of-speech options open. Councilman Tony Young, 4th District, was out of town.

“The letter seemed to go a little too far in terms of limiting my ability, should I discover information that I need to make available to the public,” said Aguirre in an interview. “In my judgment, the public has a right to know, and they have a right to know if we are cooperating or not.”

The cooperation in question involves investigations being conducted by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Attorney’s office, both of whom met with Aguirre and Mayor Dick Murphy last week in a private meeting. At that time, said Aguirre, the agencies’ representatives discussed the need for more harmony among city officials.

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“We’ve received a message that they’re not happy that we didn’t cooperate properly, and they’re not happy that we didn’t take remedial action,” he said. “I’ve been saying that all along and it has fallen on deaf ears.”

But the same message coming from the SEC and the U.S. attorney, said Aguirre, might carry with it more authority.

“I am hopeful we will all be able to work together in a cooperative way and you will see a different message coming out of City Hall,” he said. “But I don’t want to paint myself into a corner and be prohibited from doing my job.”

The “tempo and intensity” of the investigations have picked up, said Aguirre, adding that “it’s more focused. You will see less public conflict, and that will make my job a lot easier, and my job is to have full compliance. This will allow me to lower my profile some and focus on my work.”

Also on March 8, Aguirre announced that he will begin providing background reviews of city nominees to major boards and commissions. These would include the Water Authority, Qualcomm Stadium Advisory Board, the Ethics Commission, and the beleaguered Port Authority, whose newest commissioner, Kourosh Hangafarin drew fire recently for signing an unauthorized trade agreement with a Cuban food agency during a trip to Havana last month.

At the time of his appointment by the City Council in January, Hangafarin had been praised as a successful business and civil leader. Since then, news reports have revealed a financial history that included two bankruptcies.

The new vetting process will include a thorough check on the nominee’s resume and background. The information will then be sent to the City Council and the newly appointed audit committee, which will be working with federal investigators and outside auditor, KPMG, to complete a review of the city’s financial reporting.

But Aguirre said March 9 that he hadn’t yet decided on how public a nominee’s background information will be.

“That’s the question, isn’t it?” he said. “It remains to be seen and I’ll have to look into it. This requires a balance.”

Should nominees to boards and commissions be subjected to the same public scrutiny as candidates for elected office? Aguirre asked.

“I don’t want this to be so burdensome that no one wants to serve on a board or commission,” he said. “But when hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, and in the public’s interest, I don’t want to take that for granted either. At some point, we have to draw the line in order to get people interested in serving. Disclosing the most intimate details of their lives could have a chilling effect.”

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