Last year, when the city auditor was investigating the history of questionable real estate transactions in San Diego, the auditor’s office was not allowed to consult with its own attorneys when researching the transactions.
Instead, auditors had to rely on the city attorney’s office, which had done the legal work that was being reviewed — and criticized in the final report.
The previous year, while the city auditor was examining public debts that were costing taxpayers some $25 million a year, the city attorney’s office had refused to turn over records requested by the auditors.
And in 2019, when city auditors were investigating policy violations related to a multimillion-dollar contract, they had to rely solely on the city attorney’s office for legal advice, even though the office approved the contract.
The City Auditor’s Office requested permission to hire independent counsel before Andy Hanau became City Auditor.
City council took a big step toward that goal on Monday, when a majority of council members agreed to begin a process of meeting and consulting before taking the issue to voters later this year.
The decision was made 5-4.
“In very specific and narrow cases, the city auditor should have access to independent legal counsel in order to conduct an audit,” said board member Vivian Moreno, who was part of the majority.
“I would expect this option to be used sparingly,” she said.
In addition to Moreno, the point was endorsed by Council Chairman Sean Elo-Rivera and members Joe LaCava, Monica Montgomery Steppe and Chris Cate. Council members Stephen Whitburn, Jennifer Campbell, Raul Campillo and Marni von Wilpert voted against moving to a meet-and-conference procedure.
The meeting and conference session approved on Monday must take place before the question can be put to voters in November.
If union leaders and city officials agree on specific language and terms, voters will be asked to amend the San Diego City Charter to allow the City Auditor to hire independent attorneys. when potential conflicts of interest are perceived.
“Where the City Auditor believes that it would be in the public interest to use independent legal counsel for an audit, investigation, or other office activity, the City Auditor will make a request to the Audit Committee. ‘audit, which must confirm,’ said the auditor. in a report to the board.
Other independent offices in the City of San Diego rely on outside attorneys when they perceive possible conflicts of interest, the city auditor’s report notes, including the Ethics Commission and the Commission on police practices.
Whitburn said he was reluctant to participate in a meet-and-greet process opposed by City Attorney Mara Elliott.
“There are deep legal concerns that have been expressed,” Whitburn said during Monday’s debate. “I will by default take the advice of our city attorney very seriously.”
But Cate, who is serving the final months of her two four-year terms on the board, said the plan includes allowing the city auditor to hire outside counsel only when needed.
“We’re well on our way to finding the right balance,” Cate said.
The proposed charter amendment is expected to be presented to voters later this year. The council will need to vote again by Aug. 12 for the issue to qualify for the November ballot.