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Rocky, the punching bag

L.A.'s city attorney has been taking a lot of hits, often providing political cover for council members.

December 04, 2006

LOS ANGELES City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo has been taking it on the chin on one issue after another. He's a prominent target, and occasionally deserving, but going after Rocky is also a copout by design.

The City Council at first accepted Delgadillo's advice to settle firefighter Tennie Pierce's discrimination suit for $2.7 million, but the mayor vetoed it, and several council members then claimed Delgadillo had withheld crucial information. A majority of the council was furious with the city attorney's advice against putting Proposition R, the term-limits extension, on the November ballot. Councilwoman Jan Perry got her own lawyer to second-guess Deldagillo's recommendation to settle a suit over arrests of homeless people sleeping outdoors on skid row, and a majority of the council ended up spurning the agreement. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, from his first day in office, hired a personal lawyer rather than rely on legal expertise from the city attorney's office.

It is not Delgadillo's fault, at least not all of it. His post is almost destined to be a whipping boy for City Hall. Having an elected city attorney act as both chief municipal prosecutor and official governmental advocate provides political cover to other politicians, who can blame their actions or inaction on their lawyer's advice without bearing responsibility for his job performance. If the mayor and the City Council are to be held truly accountable for their decisions, perhaps they ought to have a lawyer they can fire.

Mayor Richard Riordan wanted to be able to hire and fire the city attorney, like the mayors of New York and other large cities can, and made winning that authority a cornerstone of his 1990s campaign to reform the City Charter. Reformers eventually concluded that it was better to retain the independence of a city attorney accountable only to voters and not to the whims of another politician.

Delgadillo has done himself no favors by giving kid-gloves treatment to the billboard companies who have funded his campaigns, and by running unsuccessfully for state attorney general so soon after winning a second term. Council members resent independent lawyers. But if Pierce wins more than $2.7 million at trial, what good did Delgadillo's independence do voters and taxpayers? It's unlikely the mayor and the council will be held to account for rejecting his advice.

Appointed city attorneys must deal with politics of a different kind. Every lawyer hired by a politician knows that he or she is one brief, or one vote, from being fired, so there is immense pressure to craft legal opinions that cater to the political needs of elected officials rather than the best interests of the city.

But that arrangement may be a bit more honest in the long run. The buck ought to stop with the decision maker, without the safety net an elected city attorney provides.

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