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Hahn Defends Role of His Office Before Charter Panel

June 14, 1998|TED ROHRLICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As he strode to a lectern Saturday to defend the integrity of his agency, Los Angeles City Atty. James K. Hahn had to pass the man who had just finished urging the elected charter commission to do a Jeffrey Dahmer number on it.

Compared to Dahmer, the cannibal from Milwaukee, Mayor Richard Riordan showed restraint.

He wanted the city attorney's office cut into only two or three pieces.

Still, it was an awkward moment.

"How are ya, Jim?" the city's top elected official said, grinning.

The No. 2 elected official more or less snarled back that he was OK.

"Do you want to do away with something that's worked for 148 years?" Hahn then asked a charter commission trying to decide whether to use the mayor's scalpel.

Riordan has suggested that the mayor be allowed to appoint a city attorney to advise the various departments of the executive branch, that the City Council be allowed to appoint its own lawyer as an advisor and that the voters elect a third lawyer as a misdemeanor prosecutor.

All three functions are now under one elected city attorney.

In a debate over the quality of legal representation that office now provides, Riordan and Hahn exposed the main quandary facing two commissions that are trying to update the city's 1925 charter: How many checks and balances should they sacrifice in exchange for more efficiency and accountability?

"What we have now is a perfect set of checks and balances that doesn't work," the mayor contended.

Acting independently, he said, the elected city attorney frequently frustrates the mayor's efforts to make department heads responsive.

For the mayor to do his job, Riordan said, he needs a lawyer accountable to him. He noted other mayors who have that relationship in cities such as Chicago, New York, Phoenix and San Antonio.

After challenging the starkness of the picture the mayor painted, Hahn raised the specter of corruption.

An appointed city attorney's top priority would be to do the mayor's bidding--not act in what he believes is the best interest of taxpayers, he argued.

Los Angeles has been relatively corruption-free, he said.

"You want somebody watching."

Hahn said he is often pressured by the council and mayor. "But the fact that I am elected gives every attorney in my office the freedom . . . to tell the truth, lay out all the facts."

Riordan complained that, as mayor, he feels like a legal client who cannot control his own attorney because he lacks the ability to fire him.

Hahn said the client has the ability to fire the lawyer now.

"It's called an election."

The commission, which will submit its recommendations to voters next spring, laid down its scalpel--at least for the day, postponing a decision until June 25.

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