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RISKY BUSINESS

The suits stop here

Mayor Villaraigosa should be the one to crack down on departments whose mistakes cost the city millions.

December 23, 2006

COUNCILMAN DENNIS ZINE and City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo want the city to adopt a risk management program to make departments less likely to be sued for their foolish mistakes.

The idea is shocking because it leads to the inevitable conclusion that City Hall has no such plan already in place. Most cities and private companies have legal and insurance experts scouring every policy and practice, writing up every abusive manager and every dropped banana peel, to stop lawsuits before they happen.

Why not Los Angeles? The city paid out $40 million last year and hundreds of millions of dollars in the last decade in legal claims stemming from everything from busted sidewalks to mistreatment of employees to police misconduct.

As it turns out, the city does have plenty of programs to point out the errors of its ways, but it has failed miserably at putting those studies to use.

Controller Laura Chick has done her part, turning City Hall inside out with her hard-hitting audits that target waste and poor practices. Chick also prescribes fixes and follows up to see whether the departments took her advice.

There is a risk management unit in the City Administrative Office that monitors legal claims and liabilities. And it's already the city attorney's job to limit payouts by giving legal advice.

Yet the city keeps repeating costly mistakes. Whether you accept firefighter Tennie Pierce's claim that he was a victim of racial discrimination, there can be no dispute that the Fire Department has tolerated hazing and that the city has paid a steep price for it. The same goes for sidewalks that aren't fixed, trees that aren't pruned, contracts that aren't thoroughly vetted.

Programs to cut legal liability have been rattling around City Hall for decades. But risk management works only when there are consequences for lax behavior, and any such consequences have to come from the top: the mayor.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was correct to hold former Chief William Bamattre accountable for the continuing culture of hazing at the Fire Department. Now the mayor, with help from the controller, is preparing to roll out a series of programs to cut down on risks and liabilities at all city departments.

The move is welcome. Villaraigosa should force-feed every lawsuit and every controller's audit to every city department chief and demand a public accounting of recommendations adopted and rejected, to assure that whatever costly mistake was made doesn't happen again.

The mayor should make sure that settlements and verdicts have a direct effect on the offending department's budget for the following year, as well as the general manager's perks and salary. And imagine how much more enthusiastic workers would be about policing each other's misconduct if they had to pay legal claims out of their own budgets, or if department general managers were judged by how much their payable legal claims shrink or grow.

City employees inevitably get sued. Their jobs are often dangerous and incur risk. Payouts can't be eliminated entirely.

But payouts can be reduced. With all due respect to Zine and Delgadillo, no new program is required. The job belongs to the mayor. We look forward to seeing him step up.

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