Opinion: City Attorney Mara Elliott Is a Breath of Fresh Air in San Diego

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Mara Elliott. Campaign photo

By Colleen O'Connor

Tired of the stale and tedious political climate? Look to the rulings and actions of San Diego’s first Latina City Attorney.

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Mara Elliott has led the city’s self-described “leaders” on two of the most contentious and important issues threatening the civic good—short-term rentals and the future of the Qualcomm Stadium site.

First, Elliott declared the wild west practice of short-term vacation rentals to be illegal.

Then she defied the City Council to enact strictures to prevent these “mini-hotels” from corroding the character of every neighborhood they invade.

That victory—which took months to resolve and handed the Mayor a defeat—was achieved just last week with a 6-3 vote by the City Council in favor of strict, enforceable regulations.

Elliott tackled another gnarly issue that the establishment and mega-developers wanted to snare for themselves. Both San Diego State University and the developers of SoccerCity attempted to win by signature gathering what they would otherwise have to compete for — the right to develop one of the last great pieces of open space available in San Diego.

Both initiative efforts, she argued, “effectively interfere with the mayor and council’s ability to manage the finances, land use, planning, water use and public contracts associated with city-owned land.”  These are charter obligations.

Furthermore, there was no open bidding, no nationwide competition for design, and no guarantees of reclamation, protection and restoration of the San Diego River — something the big city to the north is desperately trying to manage with the paved-over Los Angeles River.

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The estimated value to the initiative winner is $110 million. And that, in the opinion of many, is a low-ball figure.

The income generated from the leased property could be as high as $1.8 billion. That, too, is a low-ball figure.

Common sense dictates that such a priceless piece of urban land, with a river running through it, should not be decided by the initiative process. Nor should the decision be a choice between just two proposals.

Where was the world-class competition? The open bidding? The architectural competitions?

For examples of best practices for the disposition of city lands—thus far ignored by our leaders—read “The Well-Tempered City,” by Jonathan F.P. Rose. It’s a best-seller with clear advice.

Where, in short, was the law, the history, the science and the transparency in the face of such a land grab in San Diego?

While losing the first round in the lower courts, Elliott just this week won City Council approval to appeal to a higher court. However, to meet the November election deadline, her petition requires an expedited hearing.

Again, Elliott justifiably argues, “The Soccer City and SDSU West initiatives essentially force the lease or sale of City assets on terms set by the proponents. By filing writs with the Fourth District Court of Appeal, the city seeks clarity on whether this unprecedented use of the initiative process is legal.”

The City Council agreed with her—in closed session—and voted 5-3 to allow her to appeal and possibly save the taxpayers huge legal bills in litigation.

“Pre-election review of these local initiatives will ensure that an invalid measure is not presented to voters, avoiding years of costly litigation and delay,” Elliott said.

In both these cases, Elliott found the law. Imagine that: A City Attorney who follows the law; not one who fashions the law to suit the whims and wishes of powerful interests that have heretofore run the city.

In doing all this, Elliott has bucked the mayor and members of the Council, the city establishment, myriad developers, and is challenging the non-stop signature gathering machines used to circumvent an otherwise fair process.

What a breath of fresh air. A City Attorney who focuses on the issues and the law—not herself. Rare and admirable.


Colleen O’Connor is a native San Diegan and a retired college professor.

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