When it comes to new San Diego city hires, filling the high-profile job of chief of police is always most contentious, with supporters and detractors emerging from the municipal woodwork to expound their opinions of the mayor's high-stakes choice to maintain public safety.
But an office arguably as critical to keeping the city on the path of law and order is the one currently held by City Auditor Eduardo Luna, who backers say has done his best during years of big-money political interference to root out city hall's growing cascade of bureaucratic blunders and shady deals.
From water bills, misused city credit cards, and out-of-control contractor payments, Luna has cast an unblinking eye at a bevy of unflattering, fraudulent, and illegal goings-on at city hall.
Now Luna, never popular with Republican mayor Kevin Faulconer and his longtime friend and mentor, GOP ex-mayor Jerry Sanders, is nearing the end of his contract, and some insiders fear a potential financial, legal, and ethical abyss awaits the city if certain local powers-that-be engineer a behind-the-scenes way to cherry-pick a more compliant successor.
Luna, first hired in 2007 and given a ten-year contract in April 2009, “looked so mild when he came in,” La Jolla commentator Norma Damashek observed to Don Bauder in July 2014 during one of Luna's battles with Sanders, a Luna foe ever since 2012, when the auditor called out real estate developer billing irregularities in the Development Services Department.
Weeks later, per a May 2014 Union-Tribune dispatch, Luna found himself under the gun. Faulconer, then a key Sanders ally on the city council, was chairman of the audit committee in 2013 when it investigated Luna and an associate for creating an allegedly hostile work environment. The ten-month, $122,650 inquiry resulted in no punishment, and Luna's attorney Michael Aguirre blamed Sanders for fomenting the allegations.
“He looked like he was going to be a quiet pushover," Damashek said of Luna, "and he turned out to be a tough guy in the best sense of the word. So, now [San Diego’s leadership] is trying to humiliate him or make his life so hard that he will resign before his time is up.”
“In addition to failing to honor the required reimbursement of legal fees reasonably and necessarily incurred by the City Auditor, City officials are not honoring the assigned areas of responsibility given to the City Auditor under Charter Section 39.2,” said a filing for legal costs Luna submitted following the end of the investigation.
A new auditor won't be picked until next year, with Faulconer making his nomination and the city council getting last say sometime in winter or spring, according to the timeline. But by then, the final choice could already be a done backroom deal with the public none the wiser, observers familiar with the situation note.
"The City plans to hold interviews in November or December of 2018," says a July 26 request for proposals to head-hunting firms about finding Luna's successor. "The selected Consultant, along with suggested panel members, consistent with industry best practice, will recommend suggested stages of the interview process and facilitate the multi-round interview process."
Adds the document, "The Mayor’s nomination is then heard and approved before the full Audit Committee and ultimately confirmed by the City Council." Insiders expect the thus-far hidden intrigue may finally emerge into the light of day when the nomination hits the audit committee months from now, but by then the choice may already have been determined.
The audit panel consists of five members, two of which are Republican councilmembers, chairwoman Lorie Zapf and Scott Sherman, both whose terms on the committee expire at the end of the year. Zapf faces a fierce reelection battle in November, and Sherman is vacating due to term limits, raising the possibility that two new council faces will replace both.
That leaves the three so-called public members of the group, chosen by the city council. Widely viewed as most pivotal is Tom Hebrank, a wealthy financial advisor to local real estate developers, a prominent member of the GOP Lincoln Club, and one-time president of the board of the city's troubled employee pension fund.
The longtime Republican power player has contributed $10,921 over the past decade to city politicos, including $1875 to the campaigns of Kevin Faulconer, per disclosure records. The panel's two other public members are financial consultant Alan Spencer and Ricardo Valdivia, CFO of Paragon Services Janitorial.
Hebrank's term on the audit committee expires on January 5 of next year, according to city records, but he could serve longer than that depending on how quickly the city council confirms a replacement. The terms of Spencer and Valivida run until January 2020 and January 2021 respectively.
Many critics blame the real estate development lobby and well-connected city contractors for efforts to keep the auditor under the mayor's thumb, going back to Luna's predecessor, John Torell. He quit his position in December 2006 less than two years on the job, complaining that then-mayor Jerry Sanders repeatedly called him out for failing to toe the party line.
"We were told we were being negative about the city,” Torell's top aide Larry Tomanek told the Voice of San Diego in February 2007.
“We weren’t being negative, we were telling the truth. We didn’t want to sugarcoat anything. We wanted to say that things were bad if they were bad.” In answer to such criticism, voters passed June 2008's Proposition C, creating a ten-year term for the auditor and restructuring the audit committee.
Luna, who received a total of $223,041 in pay and benefits last year, according to the website TransparentCalifornia.com, did not immediately return a phone call regarding his plans.