Sep 11, 2023 - News

San Diego again ponders weakening role of city attorney

City attorney Mara Elliott at the Women's March in 2019

San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott at the 2019 San Diego Women's March. Photo: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images

San Diego voters next November could make big changes to the elected city attorney's office.

Driving the news: City officials are considering a measure for the November 2024 ballot — after pursuing and then abandoning the idea in 2020 — to diminish the power of the city attorney's office.

  • If the measure passes, an elected city attorney would still prosecute misdemeanors, but counsel appointed by the council president would handle civil litigation and give elected officials legal advice.

Why it matters: The ballot issue could redefine how the city attorney's office has been structured for decades. It would also be the first major structural change to city government since voters in 2004 approved a strong mayor government, in which the mayor is chief executive of city staff and separate from the Council, the city's legislative body.

State of play: In July, the Council's rules committee voted to move forward on the measure.

Flashback: The city hired an outside law firm to work on the ballot measure in 2020.

  • "Use of outside counsel will alleviate any potential for the appearance of conflict of interest for the deputy city attorneys who would be tasked with this assignment," said Sanna Singer, former deputy city attorney, in a 2020 Council meeting.
  • Of note: It's unclear if the city attorney's office will need to recuse itself this time around.
  • The draft ballot measure approved by the rules committee is a relic of that three-year-old effort — right down to the document still reading that it would go to voters on November 3, 2020.
  • That measure stalled in labor negotiations and never went to the ballot.

What they're saying: U.S. Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego), who unsuccessfully ran in 2008 for city attorney, said he supported the change based on his time as deputy counsel for San Diego County.

  • "The County Counsel is appointed, and as an attorney on staff, I saw first hand how the legal services we provided to elected decision makers were entirely unaffected by political concerns."
  • Both 2024 city attorney candidates — Assemblymember Brian Maienschein and deputy city attorney Heather Ferbert — told the Union-Tribune they oppose the change.

What's next: The full City Council as early as October could vote to pursue the ballot measure, which would then be subject to labor negotiations because it would change working conditions for city unions.


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