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City Council Gets Its Own Attorney

Some see the move as a rebuke of City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, whose office provides legal advice to the panel.

October 13, 2006|Steve Hymon and Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writers

In an unusual move widely viewed as a swipe at City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, the Los Angeles City Council is getting a lawyer to provide it with independent legal advice, officials confirmed Thursday.

The attorney was hired by and will work for the chief legislative analyst, an office that answers directly to the council.

The move, according to several sources, is largely motivated by some council members' frustration over Delgadillo's mixed record in defending council legislation in court, the quality of his office's advice and, to a lesser degree, the settlements his office negotiates in lawsuits against the city.

"Frequently we weren't getting ordinances out fast enough, and sometimes we were getting inconsistent legal advice," said Councilman Greig Smith, who spearheaded the efforts to hire another attorney.

Officials with the analyst's office downplayed the addition as just another "legislative analyst" for an office that already provides some legal analysis to the council. Officials declined to identify the new hire.

Delgadillo, through spokesman Jonathan Diamond, declined to comment.

Diamond said that his understanding is that the person who was hired will not serve as the legal counsel to the council.

"The city attorney is the legal counsel for the municipal corporation," Diamond said. "Our role is clearly defined."

The relationship between the council and the city attorney is by its nature sometimes adversarial in the same way that a client and an attorney may not always agree.

But the move by the council suggests that the officials who control the branch of city government that creates laws have lost some faith in the branch charged with vetting and enforcing them.

Some say the hiring could undermine the city attorney's role as legal advisor to the council.

"What happens when the city attorney gives legal advice and the attorney in the CLA's office gives counter legal advice?" said Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at Duke University and chairman of a charter reform commission in Los Angeles in the late 1990s.

In his five years in office, Delgadillo has emerged as one of City Hall's more ambitious officials. Delgadillo's political advisors are known as "Team 1600" -- a reference to the White House's address -- and last year he filed to run for state attorney general eight days after winning reelection to his city job.

Delgadillo heads a department with 520 attorneys and a budget of about $95 million. The office prosecutes thousands of misdemeanor criminal cases each year.

Several council members and staffers were reluctant to discuss the new position publicly for fear of further straining their relationships with Delgadillo.

"If you're married to someone and your spouse suddenly hires their own attorney, wouldn't that give you a reason for pause?" said one chief of staff for a council member, who requested anonymity to avoid jeopardizing work in the district involving the city attorney's office.

Councilman Tony Cardenas stressed that the new attorney will not be the council's legal counsel -- Delgadillo's office will continue in that role. "We're not going to eliminate the relationship with the city attorney," Cardenas said. "This is just an enhancement."

In recent months, the council and the city attorney's office have clashed several times.

Councilwoman Jan Perry last month hired her own attorneys to seek advice on how the city should proceed in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union over the city's sidewalk-sleeping ban. The council agreed with Perry's attorneys and rejected a settlement worked out between Delgadillo's office and the ACLU.

"I felt that I needed a consultant who would be able to advise me free of any political perspective and help me stay focused on the technical aspects of engaging in a settlement discussion," Perry said.

Delgadillo also angered the council when he released a legal opinion that clearly spelled out the vulnerabilities of a ballot measure that would ease term limits for the council but not the city attorney. A Los Angeles resident sued over the legality of the ballot measure, and a Superior Court judge found the measure unconstitutional last month. It has remained on the Nov. 7 ballot but will be reviewed by an appeals court in late November.

Council members have also received complaints from constituents who do not feel the city attorney is doing enough to protect apartment dwellers from condominium conversions.

Smith said the move should not be seen as a vote of no-confidence in Delgadillo. Rather, he said that deputy city attorneys are often too overloaded with work to promptly serve elected officials.

The last straw for Smith involved a contract, negotiated by Delgadillo's office, between the city and the Sunshine Canyon Landfill above Granada Hills that Smith believed favored the dump's owner.

"Legal counsel said it was a great contract, and the council tore it to shreds," Smith said.

Similar frustrations about the timeliness and quality of legal advice from the city attorney were cited when the city Ethics Commission recently considered hiring its own attorney. The plan was dropped when Delgadillo objected.

"There is an argument for having an elected city attorney who advises the mayor and council. The argument is to keep a check on the council and mayor," said Xandra Kayden, a senior fellow at the UCLA School of Public Affairs.

However, Kayden thinks the council should be able to seek independent legal advice on issues when the council wants to move quickly and the city attorney appears to be throwing up roadblocks.


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