March 28, 2008

Steve Padilla


Take the arguments used by some in support of at least one June ballot measure to their logical conclusions and you might get some interesting results. O.K., let’s play along. If all public officials with significant responsibilities are elected, then their work will be better, more transparent, more responsive, less corruptible and less subject to outside influences. They will be more accountable to the public and the public will be better served. So, if every official is elected then government will truly be servant of the people, and all will be right with the world. Right. Wrong.

If the proponents of at least one of two highly visible ballot measures before voters in Chula Vista in June have their way, there will be six politicians on the council dais every week not five. Why not, let’s have the whole City Council and Mayor, the City Attorney and heck the City Manager too, all elected by the people-and thus their more responsive servants. Those who advocate opening this door have not thought the matter through, and I will certainly be voting no.

I spent twenty years understanding first hand as they say how the “sausage is made” and trust me, we need not add more spare part ingredients into the mix. The idea of turning what has been a non-political professional municipal law attorney into a pandering politician relying upon the often changing whims of the general public for his or her livelihood, all in the name of increased political independence is ludicrous. For some very important offices it is as important for the official to be free of the political influences of the general public and electioneering as it is for them to be free of office politics or the undue influence of any group of politicians who may have the power to appoint them. The office of City Attorney is just one such office.

Imagine for a moment, the person charged with rendering highly regulated professional legal advice to the city’s officials both elected and non-elected, who must protect the interests of the city as a whole, provide answers to legal questions and responses to challenges even when they are politically unpopular or unwelcome. Now picture them out knocking on doors, giving speeches, soliciting campaign contributions and debating public policy (which they are not charged with setting, regulating or influencing other than as to its legality) and having to win votes in order to work. Oh, and you don’t think they will have to ask for contributions from many of the same people Mayor and City Council candidates seek them from? People who may be involved in city politics because they have a particular point of view or political agenda?

When professionals charged with providing professional services start being politicians who must campaign for their jobs they ultimately have to make promises about city policy which is not their job. They then end up convoluting and confusing the question as to just who is supposed to be on the bridge steering the ship, and who is supposed to be in the engine room making sure all operations are running smoothly and lawfully.

Look no further than north to San Diego to see an example of this craziness. One of the most interesting moments in my career while serving on the California Coastal Commission was being embarrassed and having to apologize to the representatives from the other regions of our state because the City of San Diego had an item before us in which that city had two different and opposing official positions-on their own item. One position advanced by the administration and one by the City Attorney’s office. Politics.

Our founding fathers knew enough that our government’s powers must be separated and that there must be checks and balances. Many of the cabinet posts in the executive branch are significant and hold great power. Key cabinet members head large national and international agencies which are responsible for things like war and peace, diplomacy, human rights, the environment and many others. We do not elect the Secretaries of State, Defense, Education and the Interior and nor should we. By the logic of those supporting this bad idea for Chula Vista, perhaps we should elect the City Clerk as well. While we’re at it, why not elect the Police and Fire Chiefs, the Planning Director, and the Parks & Recreation Director, then everyone will be in charge and no one will be in charge.

Chula Vista’s municipal government was once long regarded as one of stability and professionalism. It balanced public accountability and authority in the Mayor and City Council while providing for professional lawyers and day to day administrators. The ballot measure to elect the City Attorney will not increase accountability or reduce political influences, but in fact will do the opposite. Chula Vista already has five politicians on the dais, it does not need six. This is one case where less is clearly more.

Padilla served as Chula Vista Mayor from 2002-06 and on the California Coastal Commission from 2005-07. He is President/CEO of Aquarius Group, Inc. and can be contacted at:

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