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Home / Articles / News / News /  Understanding Jan Goldsmith
. . . .
Wednesday, Jan 22, 2014

Understanding Jan Goldsmith

We sit down with San Diego's city attorney for an unexpected marathon interview

By Joshua Emerson Smith

Jan Goldsmith (left) and Assistant City Attorney Paul Cooper
Photo by Kelly Davis

“Now, with this strong-mayor form of government, do you even know who the city manager is?” he added. “The charter’s not clear, but there’s also a chief operating officer. And now we have an assistant chief operating officer. We have four deputy chief operating officers. And all of the instructions are where? In private, behind closed doors.”

CityBeat asked Goldsmith about his legal stance on a lawsuit alleging deception on the part of a referendum campaign to overturn a zoning-plan update in Barrio Logan. He recently wrote an op-ed in U-T San Diego that lauded “direct democracy” and the referendum process; the commentary came after interim Mayor Gloria asked the City Attorney’s office to join the lawsuit opposing the referendum. The City Council passed the zoning plan but was forced to move forward with the referendum that would repeal it because critics of the plan gathered enough petition signatures. Because the City Council placed the referendum on the ballot, the city was named as a defendant.

There’s no basis to join the lawsuit other than to find a way to “undermine the referendum process,” Goldsmith said. “The reason I wrote the op-ed is because we were getting a lot of pressures to do exactly that. I mean, people were coming from council, letters from the standpoint [of defending] the City Council, join in a lawsuit against the proponents of the referendum and be proactive.”

It’s yet to be determined whether the referendum will be thrown out based on allegations that paid signature gatherers lied to voters in order to convince them to sign petitions. However, Goldsmith pointed to a recent judge’s decision that found there wasn’t enough evidence to grant a temporary restraining order to stop the referendum process while the legal battle plays out.

Goldsmith, whose office is defending the city in the lawsuit filed by opponents of the referendum, said he had no opinion on whether signature gatherers had lied and added that his office may have been able to investigate the claims had the issue been brought to his attention sooner.

“The opponents of the referendum, if they wanted the city’s involvement, rather than use all this political pressure, what they should have done, frankly, is come to us, behind closed doors, and provide the evidence to us and say, ‘What do you think?’” he said. “We would have had our lawyers research that and see whether the city should be involved.”

Lawyers with Coast Law Group, who represent the referendum opponents, said they brought concerns to the City Attorney’s office weeks before filing the lawsuit.

Goldsmith responded via email to a follow-up question on the topic: “If they did [contact our office], it was not brought to my attention. But that is not surprising since [Deputy City Attorney] Sharon Spivak advises the city clerk and gets complaints / issues from all sides whenever there is an election. Sharon and her team do a good job and do not get the city embroiled in political issues.”

Goldsmith, who’s taught as an adjunct professor at three San Diego law schools, used the conversation to talk about his appreciation for the history of direct democracy, specifically the initiative process.

“Direct democracy is a big part of my course,” he said. “And we have long discussions about that because it’s different than what direct democracy was around the turn of the century.

“I love the progressive movement around the turn of the century, when they stuck it to the big corporations through direct democracy,” he added.

Specifically, he mentioned his adoration for the 21st governor of California, George Pardee, who was famous for having stood up to the powerful corporate leaders of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

In San Diego, the special interests are “unions” and “business,” he said. “Folks in the neighborhoods feel left out.”

When asked if he thought the referendum process had been hijacked by special interests, Goldsmith said: “I do think that initiatives and referendums have gotten to the point where people can get these things on the ballot through spending for it, and that has strayed from the original purpose of the initiative and referendum. And I do think that we do need to take a look at that. How do you do that, though?”

It’s important to protect a citizen's right to question and oppose government, Goldsmith said. As an example, he said he regrets the way his office handled the so-called “Chalk-U-py” case that made national headlines last summer.

“We try to use the discretion because it’s a protest case,” he said. “It wasn’t treated like a protest case. It was treated like a typical gang-vandalism-graffiti case, and that’s where we went wrong.”

The City Attorney’s office brought 13 misdemeanor vandalism counts against Jeff Olson, who used water-soluble chalk to write anti-Wall Street slogans on public sidewalks outside of corporate banks. A jury found Olson not guilty on all charges. Goldsmith said he didn’t know about the case until it went to trial.

“I could [stop it], but how do you exercise the discretion at that point?” he said. “It was already prosecuted. Protest cases ought to be handled differently from the beginning, but by that point, it was kind of too late.”

The jury’s decision to ignore the law and exercise a process known as jury nullification “was done right,” he said. “We were technically right on the law, but that’s not the way to handle a protest case, and we’re going to do better.”

As with many topics, Goldsmith talked openly about his support for pension reform in San Diego but stressed that his political beliefs haven’t colored his legal opinions. “Do I have political views? Yeah,” he said. “I have political views. Do they matter in my law practice? No.”

In 2012, San Diego voters approved Proposition B, which froze for five years city employees’ so-called “pensionable pay”—the portion of an employee’s pay that’s factored into the employee’s pension—and replaced defined-benefit pensions for most newly hired city employees with something akin to a 401(k) plan.

In the run-up to the vote, Goldsmith said he remained neutral. “I actually didn’t fight for it,” he said. “I appeared in one press conference [to announce the launch of the Proposition B campaign] where [former City Attorney] John Witt was there, and I thanked John Witt for being there. But, yeah, I voted for it.

“In fact, the idea of a pensionable-pay freeze was something that I proposed to the unions publicly as part of a global settlement before Prop. B even got on the ballot,” he added.

In an effort to keep the proposition off the ballot, the Public Employment Relations Board sued the city, alleging that former Mayor Jerry Sanders didn’t properly negotiate with municipal employees before bringing the issue to voters. Goldsmith issued an opinion defending Prop. B and entered into a legal battle that’s still playing out today.

“You won’t see me involved in anything else on Prop. B,” he said. “I try to temper what I do. If I’m going to take a position on something, you’re not going to see me raising money. You’re not going to see me doing all that stuff. I’ll speak out. I’ll say a few words, and that’s about it. If I was a judge, I wouldn’t say a word, keep it to myself. I’m not to that level, but I try to use some discretion.”

One of the toughest situations Goldsmith said he’s ever had to deal with was the scandal that led to the resignation of former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner.

“It was about the most uncomfortable position I’ve ever been in in law,” he said. “You have information that’s coming from the 11th floor that is disturbing. I’ll just keep it at that.”

While Filner was “tough to deal with,” the former mayor did some “good stuff” during his time in office, Goldsmith said. However, after allegations of sexual harassment started to surface last summer, the City Attorney’s office had an “obligation to investigate,” Goldsmith said. 

“I know a lot of people didn’t like it, and that’s where the conspiracy people said, ‘Oh, from day one, he’s been out to get him.’ I actually like Bob. I met with him last week. I like him. I always have. I don’t like his problem. He’s got a problem, which he’s dealing with.”

In a November Los Angeles Times story, Tony Perry quoted Goldsmith as saying: “We strategized as lawyers: How were we going to remove the mayor? It was a de facto impeachment.” Asked to clarify that, Goldsmith said: “I didn’t take down the mayor. Our job had to do with the legal aspects of it, and that’s it.”

Goldsmith reiterated his support for Filner’s personal growth. “Let’s just say, Bob Filner was not just abusive towards women. He was abusive towards a lot of people, including me, and including my lawyers, anybody he viewed as a position of some type of authority. He’s dealing with that, and I hope he gets better, and I think he will, personally.”

Goldsmith said he didn’t request the interview that resulted in Perry’s article. “No. We were having breakfast. Believe it or not, I get together with people I know in the media.”

After spending more than three hours discussing civic policies and legal opinions with the City Attorney, it wasn’t hard to believe that he regularly hobnobs with folks in the news media.

“You guys are a pleasure to talk with,” he said with a smile. “I appreciate your questions, but I know you’re out to ream me. Whatever. It is what it is. I don’t really care.”

As we walked out of the office, Goldsmith continued chatting, recounting tales of driving a cab in New York and other such anecdotes. Cooper chuckled and showed us to the door.

Write to or follow him on twitter at @jemersmith.

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