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Didn't get the memo

The public is entitled to know the workings and failings of government, so what is the county counsel doing?

July 24, 2007

Those lawyers in the Los Angeles County counsel's office are some piece of work. They reverse a policy, in place for nearly two decades, of telling the public their reasons for paying out taxpayer money to settle lawsuits against the county. They make this decision without telling anyone. Then they claim that they did it for our own good because they're our lawyers and they know best.

It's a good thing Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina isn't buying it. To her credit, Molina has made scrutiny of the county counsel's office a hallmark of her tenure on the board. Maybe it's because, as a former legal secretary, she knows too much about how attorneys do their work and prepare their bills to sit quietly when her lawyers tell her to "just trust us."

The county counsel has a knack of making decisions on behalf of the people of the county and then refusing to explain its decisions publicly because to do so would violate the attorney-client privilege. Now Molina is calling for County Counsel Ray Fortner to explain why, in May, he began to suppress settlement memorandums. Those memos detailed for the public how its county employees messed up. Whether it was a sheriff's deputy who spilled hot coffee on his lap, causing him to plow his patrol car into an oncoming vehicle, or a social worker who failed to visit a foster child and missed signs of abuse, the memos were a window into what went wrong in county government.

Here's the important part: They were also a guide to improving service for 10 million county residents. Some experts, for example, claimed that social workers' caseloads were high; the memos helped lay out the financial cost of not lowering them. Some knew the Sheriff's Department occasionally hired a deputy it shouldn't have; the memos told us who and how many.

County lawyers claim that the settlement memos also instructed litigants in how to win a lucrative settlement from the county. That may be, although now that there's a record of such public memos dating to the 1980s, it's hard to see how suppressing new ones will help.

At the very least, the county's lawyers must justify their change in policy publicly and leave it to their clients -- represented by the Board of Supervisors -- to affirm or reject the decision and then be held publicly accountable for it.

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