Web of City Hall Connections Aids Lobbyists, Powerful Lawyers

Times Staff Writer

San Diego Planning Commissioner Ralph Pesqueira needed a favor. So during a break in a recent commission meeting, Pesqueira walked into the audience and approached an attorney who was there representing a developer.

Pesqueira wanted to know if his 22-year-old daughter, who was bound for law school, could drop by the lawyer’s office for a couple of days and observe what goes on.

Attorney Paul A. Peterson quickly said yes. And two weeks ago, Peterson’s firm put the commissioner’s daughter on its payroll as a part-time summer intern.


The arrangement is legal. And both men say it does not compromise Pesqueira’s public duty as an appointed official to vote impartially on development projects proposed by Peterson’s clients.

Yet it illustrates how one of the city’s most powerful lobbying outfits develops connections with the government it makes its living from.

Peterson, Thelan & Price is one of the most influential lobbying forces at City Hall. The firm’s clout in winning approvals for developers comes from meticulous research, hard-nosed bargaining, detailed legal knowledge and skillful public presentations, say those who have negotiated with them on building projects.

Their clients and causes are among the biggest in San Diego: Chevron Land Development Co., which wants to develop a large chunk of Mission Valley; Signal-Rescoe, which wants to build a trash-to-energy plant near the Miramar Naval Air Station; the Lomas Group, a large developer; Santa Fe Pacific Realty Corp., which has plans to develop its downtown property, and the San Diego Blood Blank, which wanted to make sure a proposed city ordinance prohibiting the razing of residential hotels didn’t stop plans to evict tenants and tear down a residential hotel to make way for a blood bank parking lot.

“When they come in representing someone, there is a fairly high probability that the project, the proposal, is going to be approved. That’s just a statistical statement,” said Tim O'Connell, a city Planning Department employee.

“I don’t know if it is political power or skill,” O'Connell said. “I would tend to think it is because of skill.”

But there are connections, too. And even attorneys for the firm agree that their formal and informal ties in the world of city government have been good for business. Some of those connections include:

- Working for local government.

Between 1977 and 1983, Peterson was paid $516,714 as the general counsel to the Metropolitan Transit Development Board; now his firm represents the Santa Fe Pacific Realty Corp., which is negotiating with MTDB for the right-of-way for a downtown trolley line.

In addition, attorney Gregory Garratt used to be a deputy county counsel before he was hired away by the firm almost eight years ago. Most of Garratt’s land-use lobbying is done at the county.

- Acting as advisers to local government.

Attorneys for the firm are on a wide range of government boards, commissions and task forces. They serve on the county’s Water Authority Board and a county Assessment Appeals Board. They sit on the city’s Park and Recreation Board; Historical Site Board; the San Diego Convention Center Corp.; citywide Economic Development Corp.; Southeast Economic Development Corp.; and Councilwoman Gloria McColl’s “infrastructure” task force to study the adequacy of streets, sewers and other public facilities in her Mid-City district.

Past appointments include the Stadium Authority Governing Board, the city’s campaign review task force and former Mayor Roger Hedgecock’s Growth Management Task Force.

- Helping politicians get elected.

Employees of Peterson, Thelan & Price have contributed more than $25,000 to City Council and mayoral races during the last three years, according to a review of campaign records by the newly-formed Citizens for Responsible Government, a successor organization in San Diego to Common Cause. Clients of the law firm--which includes some of the biggest landowners and developers--have contributed nearly $75,000 to municipal campaigns during the same period, the review showed.

In addition, the attorneys occasionally act as advisers during political campaigns. Peterson, for instance, served on Councilman Bill Cleator’s “issues committee” during his recent mayoral bid. The firm also holds fund-raisers so its clients can meet and give money to selected candidates.

- A romantic involvement.

Rebecca Michael, a Peterson, Thelan & Price partner who meets privately with city planning staff members and testifies publicly before city officials, has been dating Deputy Planning Director Allen Jones, whose division reviews and makes recommendations on Peterson, Thelan & Price projects.

Because of that romantic involvement, Jones has agreed to refrain from discussing or having input on departmental decisions on those projects, said Asst. Planning Director Mike Stepner.

- Hiring Pesqueira’s daughter.

The firm hired Becky Pesqueira on July 9 and she will be employed there until she leaves for her first year of law school at Pepperdine University in the fall.

For the most part, such a network of civic and political connections is not unusual for people and firms with business at City Hall.

For instance, Ron Roberts, an architect with SGPA Planning & Architecture, is chairman of the city’s Planning Commission, which advises the City Council on development projects. Land-use attorney Louis Wolfsheimer is a port commissioner and former chairman of the Planning Commission.

Lobbyist attorney Paul Robinson is chairman of the city’s Housing Commission; he also helped raise money for embattled Councilman Uvaldo Martinez’s legal defense fund. And land-use attorney James R. Dawe is a member of the city’s Board of Library Commissioners.

“You end up establishing friendships that go beyond the normal working relationships,” Roberts said. “You talk to people about what’s going on and what’s going on in the city. And I would be less than honest with you if I didn’t say that presents you with opportunities.”

For Peterson, Thelan & Price, whose clout around City Hall is matched by few, Roberts said, those relationships mean “direct access to probably everybody on the City Council on probably most any issue they represent.”

“They don’t necessarily have anybody’s guaranteed vote, but they have direct access to the staffs of the decision makers who are going to make the decision,” Roberts said. “I think that’s the most significant thing.”

John D. Thelan explained that being active in civic circles bolsters the firm’s “credibility” because “you tend to have a better pulse beat of what is happening in San Diego.”

“The credibility factor cuts through all of this,” Thelan said. “Your clients have to know what you’re saying is true. If you stand before the Planning Commission and you make a statement, the Planning Commission has to know what you’re saying is true. And so does the City Council.”

The result is influence, said Jay Powell, the Sierra Club’s local conservation coordinator.

“They may not have an office, per se, in City Hall, but they’ve got a presence, that’s for darn sure,” Powell said. “They might as well have an office right there on the fourth floor (Planning Department) and the 10th floor (City Council offices). They’ve got that kind of entree.”

Added San Diego Municipal Judge Dick Murphy, a former city councilman: “There are certainly people you learn to trust in life, and I think they have built up a high level of trust with the City Council. And that gives them a substantial edge when they appear before you.”

Peterson took his first land-use case in 1960. But it wasn’t until the early 1970s that steering rezonings and developments through governmental agencies became lucrative enough to attract lobbying specialists.

Landowners and developers have needed the lobbyists to maneuver through a wave of new environmental regulations and laws, including the establishment of the California Coastal Commission and the requirement that complex environmental impact studies precede many developments.

Peterson began to concentrate his efforts in the new field.

“This community lives and breathes development,” said Peterson, who today charges between $200 and $300 an hour.

“The question is quality,” he said. “The role I see playing with my clients is to help them put forward the best and highest quality development they can. I don’t see them wearing black hats and I don’t feel that I’m a bad guy.”

In 1974, he hired Thelan, who was graduated from the University of San Diego. Thelan studied environmental law at USD and honed his legal skills by helping community and environmental groups, working with another young attorney named Roger Hedgecock.

“To make that jump and begin working for developers was a big change,” said Thelan, now 37.

When Peterson, Thelan and their associates take on a project--Thelan says they don’t represent “offensive” projects--they do not work alone.

They stride into the Planning Department with a battery of studies and details supplied by teams of experts--traffic engineers, architects, environmental quality consultants. Armed with facts and figures, they are ready to negotiate with city planners over how a development will look.

“They don’t come in and get unreasonable,” said O'Connell, a former senior planner. “They don’t come in and pound the table . . . They don’t get crazy on you.”

When they appear before planning commissioners and council members, the attorneys use models, slides, illustrations and charts to show what a project will look like. When they are seeking a specific council action, they pass out sample motions to the elected officials.

Their arguments are usually practical and understated. Councilman Bill Cleator, for instance, says he can’t remember when Peterson has ever used all of the time allotted to him during hearings.

Peterson and Thelan both say they know what will pass muster at City Hall, and they are not afraid to suggest their clients make concessions--more open space, decreased density--so the project will be approved.

Once a deal is struck, they make sure it stays together. One council aide said he remembered the time five years ago when a client of the firm backed out of a deal. “He was invited to find another attorney,” said the aide.

That style and philosophy has bagged some impressive lobbying victories for the firm.

Perhaps the most dramatic was on behalf of the astronomers at Mt. Palomar Observatory, who were worried that the glare from the white street lights of San Diego would hamper the view from their world-renowned 200-inch telescope.

On their own, the scientists persuaded the City Council in November, 1982, to replace some of the street lights with low-pressure sodium lamps, which emit a yellowish-orange glow. But after public complaints about the yellow lights, the council reversed itself in June, 1983.

Then the scientists hired Peterson.

The issue resurfaced and in February, 1984, the council voted again to install the yellow lights based on Peterson’s argument that the conversion would save the city $200,000 annually in maintenance and lighting costs.

How Peterson obtained that information during the controversy helps to underscore his connections at City Hall. The figure used to influence the council members was supplied, at his request, by the city manager’s office, which hadn’t passed it on to the council.

More recently, the council approved a commercial and office development called Regents Park along La Jolla Village Drive in traffic-glutted University City. The Planning Department and commission opposed the project because the developer--Lomas Santa Fe Inc. and others--decided it wanted to build 46% more office space and 61% fewer residential units than first proposed.

Peterson convinced the council to go against those recommendations because the developer was willing to make a deal. Approve the project, he said, and the developer would build a cultural complex on the site, dedicate a right-of-way for a future trolley line and agree to kick in some money for other public transit concerns.

The law firm doesn’t win every battle. Its connections and reputation around City Hall, however, make the chances good that it will get most of what it wants when the votes are counted.

“They have been around long enough that they personally know most of the members of the City Council on a good personal basis,” Murphy said. “It means in a close situation, you’re more likely to believe what they tell you than what the other side does.”

Part of that advantage, Murphy said, is because the law firm contributes to council campaigns and invites its clients to political fund-raisers.

“It’s a convenience to our clients to have an event like that occur so they can make their contributions and meet the candidates,” Thelan said.

Also in the firm’s favor is that its attorneys serve on boards and commissions at the request of elected officials, Murphy said. It’s hard to forget that Peterson, who is lobbying you for a development project, is the same Peterson who advises you as a member of the county Water Authority Board, he said.

“You may try to distinguish, but it is not consistent with human nature,” Murphy said.

One of the firm’s connections to City Hall recently posed a problem.

In late March, deputy planning director Allen Jones informed his bosses that he was dating Rebecca Michael from Peterson, Thelan & Price.

When The Times inquired about the arrangement, planning director Jack Van Cleave said that Jones would be allowed to discuss and make decisions on cases from Peterson’s firm as long as someone else from the department participated. In a letter to Van Cleave in May, San Diego City Atty. John Witt indicated the precautions were sufficient.

Last week, however, assistant planning director Mike Stepner said that Jones has agreed to refrain from discussions and decisions on those cases. When a Peterson, Thelan & Price case comes up during department meetings, Jones remains silent.

Jones declined comment.

“My personal life is none of your business,” he said. “My personal life is none of your readers’ business.”

The Times could not reach Michael for comment last week. But in an interview in March, she described her relationship with Jones.

“I’m not denying we don’t talk about business,” she said. “We talk about the major planning issues that face the city. We talk about the mayoral race. We talk about a wide variety of things.

“But we don’t talk about particular cases. I won’t show my hand to him. He won’t show his hand to me, unless we have made a decision to present something to the department.”

Meanwhile, Peterson’s firm has hired Pesqueira’s daughter after the planning commissioner approached the senior attorney during a break in a recent planning commission meeting.

Asked about the employment of his daughter, Ralph Pesqueira, owner of the popular El Indio Restaurant, initially said he asked Peterson to hire his daughter. After checking with Peterson, Pesqueira said he only asked if his daughter could be allowed to observe the workings of the land-use law firm for a couple of days.

Either way, Pesqueira said, he asked Peterson because of the firm’s reputation. The planning commissioner said he was unable to make a similar deal with other attorneys he called.

“You understand that the reason I would approach (Peterson) is only by the fact that I was exposed to them,” Pesqueira said. “Having had them in front of us, having known them, made it much more convenient to approach them, rather than to call up Joe Blow’s law firm.”

Peterson said that after Pesqueira’s daughter had been in his office for a few days, “we saw a lot of value in having her there for the summer and we offered her a job. We hired her not because she’s anybody’s daughter, but she’s bright and we needed some help in the summer months.”

He said that Pesqueira’s daughter delivers documents to court and does research on land-use matters, although none that could go before her father on the planning commission.

The arrangement violates no state or city ethics regulations, said Witt and Lynn Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

The Sierra Club’s Powell said he’s bothered by the arrangement.

“For the public benefit, as far as the public’s concern in getting the appearance of any kind of conflict out of the picture, I think it creates problems,” Powell said.

Pesqueira said his daughter does not live with him and is not a dependent. Noting that he has voted against Peterson’s clients, he said, “I don’t feel in any way that that would affect my ability to make decisions on any projects they would have. She is not an attorney. She’s merely a go-fer in their office. Therefore she does not contribute in any way to any projects that might come before us.”