San Diego mayor, city attorney in dust-up over chalk vandalism case

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner is disputing the decision by City Atty. Jan Goldsmith to prosecute a protester for slogans written in chalk on city sidewalks.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

SAN DIEGO -- Chalk up the latest dispute between the mayor and city attorney to, well, chalk.

Mayor Bob Filner on Friday told reporters that the city attorney’s prosecution of a protester for chalking anti-bank slogans on city sidewalks outside Bank of America branches is “a stupid case” and a waste of city money.


“It’s chalk,” Filner said in an exasperated tone. “It’s water-soluble chalk. They were political slogans.”

City Atty. Jan Goldsmith, at odds with the mayor on a range of issues, defends the case against 40-year-old Jeff Olson as a legitimate prosecution for graffiti vandalism.

Courts have held that graffiti remains illegal even if it can be easily washed off, Goldsmith said.

That the Bank of America contacted the city attorney’s office to reportedly urge prosecution has become part of the dispute.

“We prosecute vandalism and theft cases regardless of who the perpetrator or victim might be,” Goldsmith said. “We don’t decide, for example, based upon whether we like or dislike banks. That would be wrong under the law.”

Olson does not deny writing the slogans.

One slogan said, “No thanks, big banks.” Another, “Shame on Bank of America.” And in yet another, the bank was portrayed as an octopus grabbing at cash with its tentacles.

Olson is charged with 13 misdemeanor counts. Still, jail time is exceedingly rare in graffiti cases, with most convictions resulting in a fine and/or community service.

As Goldsmith noted, the case “is a graffiti case and nothing more.”

Filner’s background may be instructive. He was a civil rights activist in the 1960s, a Freedom Rider in the Deep South, arrested and jailed in Mississippi. He is often distrustful of entrenched authority and large corporations.

Earlier this year, Filner criticized the city attorney’s prosecution of a pro-seal activist for removing a sign at the Children’s Pool beach in La Jolla.

As the chalk case approached trial, Filner sent a memo to Goldsmith calling it “an abuse of power that infringes on (the) 1st Amendment.”

At trial, however, Judge Howard Shore said Olson’s lawyer could not invoke the 1st Amendment as a defense.

As the dispute flared between the Democratic mayor and Republican city attorney, Shore imposed a gag order on all parties. The mayor, however, will not be gagged.

“This is a nonsense prosecution and I will continue to say that,” Filner said Friday.

The case went to the jury late Friday. Deliberations are set to resume Monday.


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