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Michael J. Aguirre could be described as San Diego’s ultimate legal outsider: He’s sued the city at least four times in the last 16 years. But come November, Aguirre has a good shot at becoming the city’s ultimate insider: its city attorney. “That tells you how screwed up everything with the city is,” Aguirre asserted. A fraud and class action litigator, Aguirre now describes his hometown as “Enron by the Sea.” “Bad legal advice has cost this city about $1.2 billion in the past few years,” Aguirre said. “The problems could not be more severe and we have to guess at them because there’s such an effort to keep the important information from the public.” San Diego city government is in the midst of a federal investigation into why the city’s financial state was incorrectly reported when the city floated sewer bonds last year. Full information about a projected billion-dollar shortfall in the pension plan didn’t make it into the prospectus, and both the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission are looking into how that happened. And there are other problems. The city is appealing a 2001 superior court verdict-now worth $115 million-over actions taken on the city attorney’s advice that the jury found had harmed the owner’s ability to develop and profit from property. Border Business Park v. City of San Diego, D035881 (4th Dist. Ct. of Appeal Div. 2). And the office negotiated and defended a contract with the San Diego Chargers that guaranteed the city would buy excess tickets, which has cost the city $70 million. Aguirre appears to be far ahead in the race. In the March primary, he won 45.9% of the popular vote in a three-way race against two office insiders. With 28% of the vote, Executive Assistant City Attorney Leslie Devaney is the handpicked choice of termed-out incumbent Casey Gwinn. Deputy City Attorney Deborah Berger, who ran a reform-minded campaign, came in third and, Aguirre said, has since endorsed him. Gwinn declined to respond to Aguirre’s critique of his office. “My election isn’t a personal victory, it’s a signal of fundamental change in San Diego,” Aguirre said. “People want a city attorney who is the public’s representative and advocate, not a political insider who rubber-stamps and defends whatever the council wants to do.” Devaney, who is the office’s chief administrator, said the city attorney never “rubber-stamped” anything, but because legal advice was given in closed session, it might have looked that way. “Casey’s goal was to help solve problems, so we started giving advice in closed session to policy-makers and then sitting silent in open session,” she said. “We gave very good legal advice on the risks and ramifications, but the public didn’t know it because they didn’t see it.” City council members had endorsed Devaney or Berger, saying they feared chaos would ensue should Aguirre win. The region’s major newspaper decried Aguirre as a candidate “feasting on popular dissatisfaction with city government,” and as an “activist litigator who would abuse the office for legal jousting.” Even now that it seems very likely that Aguirre will win, city council members and other officials declined to talk about Aguirre and the race. Perhaps it’s just that Aguirre has sued the city at least four times since 1988- over redistricting, reapportionment, the Chargers ticket guarantee and public access to meetings and records. Opponent Devaney said she doesn’t see how Aguirre can represent all of his clients: the public, the council, commissions and the mayor, when he wants to take positions on issues. “Mr. Aguirre has said that when he is elected, he is willing to represent the people against the decision-makers and that’s completely unethical—you can’t sue a client for not taking your advice, and every San Diegan, every council member is your client,” she said. “There’s an important place in our system for Mike, as the burr under the saddle, but it’s not in the city attorney seat.” Meanwhile, the deputies in the city attorney’s office—more than a dozen have fought suits brought by Aguirre—may be a little nervous, according to Deputy City Attorney Jim Chapin. “I’m optimistic about how this [transition] will go,” said Chapin, noting that he is friends with both candidates. “I’m sure there are people who are more concerned than I am.”

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