A Q & A with City Attorney Jan Goldsmith
Goldsmith weighs in on the San Diego Mayor’s Race, the San Diego Convention Center expansion and more
As the only candidate for citywide office with no opponent in the upcoming election, Rostra thought it would be a good time to check in with San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith to discuss his first term in office and his views on politics and local government. Goldsmith was a Superior Court Judge for 10 years and served three terms as a state legislator. He was Mayor of Poway in the early 1990s and managed a private law firm.
How do you think your office has changed over the last four years?
The office was a disaster in 2008, from lacking basic case management to inconsistent quality control, inadequate training and poor client relations. The office was way over budget. We dug in and rebuilt the office from ground up. We achieved an extraordinary turnaround, rebuilding a 137-attorney law firm within four years, all the while continuing to practice law in a fish bowl.
When I say “we,” I do not mean “me.” This was “us,” the men and women who make up this law firm. We have very talented professionals in this office who worked very hard to make this happen. I am proud to work with them.
What is your proudest achievement in the past four years?
Our win in the retiree health litigation was the biggest legal victory in our city’s history, hands down. For decades, the city and its labor unions were at odds over whether the city could change retiree health benefits. Our lawyers took this issue to court twice and won twice. It sounds easy, but it wasn’t. These wins provided the leverage needed to reach a settlement that saved the city more than $800 million.
Although our office did not receive much credit locally, we did receive statewide recognition in legal circles. Our lead attorney in the retiree health litigation won a coveted statewide award for our team’s great litigation work.
What is your biggest disappointment?
Not being able to reach an agreement on global pension reform. In January 2011, with unanimous council and mayoral support, I proposed negotiations with unions on a global settlement of pension issues and reforms, and placed on the table all the key issues, including pensionable pay. We actually got to the table with all unions and a professional mediator, but got nowhere. The timing wasn’t right.
I believe we could have negotiated terms that would have helped avoid the ensuing initiative battle. Although we need legitimate pension reform, we also need to find ways to keep and attract good employees.
The relationship between the City Attorney’s office, the Mayor’s office and the City Council has changed significantly under the strong mayor form of government. What’s the best way to ensure a good working relationship among the three branches of government?
Stick to your role. Be down to earth and minimize the politics at city hall. The term “strong mayor” is a bit misleading. Although the mayor speaks for and leads the city, the fact is this is a bifurcated government where policy is ultimately set by the city council and executed by the mayor. Nothing is done without our office’s approval as to legality.
There are 2 ½ branches (our office being the ½ legal branch). Under our system, each branch needs to respect the independent role of each other branch and ensure a free flow of information. Otherwise, in light of some key holes in our city charter, the city runs the risk of losing the ability to get things done. Our office tries to fill the holes with some practical guidance.
What’s your plan for your second term?
You will see me be a bit more in the forefront than I have been.
The mayoral campaign in San Diego seems to get nastier by the day. You have served in both partisan and non-partisan elected offices. What’s your take on partisanship?
Sacramento is very partisan. Democrats control all statewide offices and both legislative houses by wide margins. Some Republicans feel they are relegated to being the loyal opposition as their relevance in policy making is slim.
It wasn’t always this way. When I served in the legislature in the mid-1990s, there was more bi-partisan policy making due largely to the fact that both parties were empowered. As with retiree health, successful negotiations require leverage on both sides. We had it back then and did some very fine work. They don’t have it today.
On the local level, there is partisanship in the election campaigns, but not in governance. Although I have seen policy differences, I have not seen partisanship on the city council.
The mayor’s race started to heat up when Assemblymen Nathan Fletcher dropped the Republican Party and switched to independent. Would you ever consider such a move?
Certainly, I don’t fault anyone for registering as they see fit. Although I don’t agree with some views of social conservatives, I remain a Republican because of my core beliefs in other areas.
I view party registration and independence as very different concepts. No elected official should take a policy position – just as no city attorney or judge should take a legal position – based on outside pressures, whether they’re from a political party or a powerful special interest. For me, independence is in my DNA, not on my voter registration card.
Who is San Diego’s next mayor? If you won’t answer that, who do you think has run the best campaign? And if you won’t answer that, can you tell us what makes a good mayor?
As for the campaign, I’ll answer that on June 6. There’s a lot of this campaign remaining.
The mayor is chief executive officer of a $3 billion operation with some 9,000 employees and a public that is both shareholders and customers. The mayor replaced the city manager. He/she must have management skills without micro-managing, people skills, patience, be independent-minded, have a backbone and have some idea as to how negotiations work. In fact, overseeing negotiations is a good part of the job. While possessing all these skills, the mayor must value transparency, work well with the media and have a good idea as to where he/she wants to lead San Diego.
Having served as a mayor, it is important to stay down to earth. Understand that you don’t suddenly know everything simply because you received more votes. Listen, learn and then make up your mind. There will be mistakes. Don’t be afraid to correct them.
I am not endorsing anyone in the mayoral race, and I don’t want to give an impression by these responses that I favor any of them. The composite of these four candidates would make an extraordinary mayor!
What’s the biggest issue facing City Hall and how can it be resolved?
Sacramento. The governor and state legislature are shifting much of the state’s fiscal problems to the local level while removing local control, particularly on labor issues. This is an alarming pattern that strays from past policies. Even if cities such as San Diego are willing to make tough reforms, new state laws are making it harder to implement them.
Most in the public are not seeing this because the local media generally does not cover what occurs in Sacramento and how the decisions up there impact San Diegans.
Localities must do a better job of educating the media and our communities. The League of Cities and other statewide groups must be more aggressive in protecting local control.
Why did you go on the record saying the convention center expansion tax may not be legal? What do you think the outcome of the validation lawsuit will be?
I noticed that some folks were assuring the public this was clearly legal when we were not saying that. Our office speaks for itself because we stand behind what we say. If we see others trying to publicly speak for us, and what they say is incorrect, we will correct them publicly.
The outcome of the validation lawsuit will be of statewide significance as this is a test case. The city hired the key lawyer in this field to plan this tax, oversee the vote and handle the validation lawsuit. He’s an expert in the field and I’ll let him do his job. By the way, he has also expressly refused to opine on legality.