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Trutanich stirs city attorney's office

During his first month, he worried his staff, questioned police and issued edicts. He is praised and criticized.

August 09, 2009|Maeve Reston

Carmen Trutanich was being interviewed at the start of his fifth full week as Los Angeles city attorney when the door of his eighth-floor office at City Hall East swung open.

A deputy stepped in to deliver the news of his administration's first win: dismissal of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a 19-month-old girl killed when police stormed a South L.A. auto shop. They had returned fire on her father, who was holding the child in his arms.

It was a delicate matter, but Trutanich's first reaction was to show pride in his team's work. He hugged and high-fived his deputies, offering one of them a cigar from a wooden box at the back of his office. A Times photographer captured the scene.

A more seasoned elected official might have tempered his response in front of two journalists. But Trutanich likes to refer to himself as a "dude" and "not a politician."

Over the next few minutes of the interview -- as his chief deputy, William Carter, gently interrupted at least three times to note how emotional the child's death was -- Trutanich alternated between his sadness as a father and indignation that the family had sued police, who he said followed procedure and tried to rescue the child.

"Bottom line is," the city attorney said rapping his knuckles on his desk, "what a great day for L.A."

"Sad for the family," Carter interjected.

"Sad for the family," Trutanich echoed. "But you know, you know what, it's not. L.A. should have never been sued, period."

Carter spoke up again: "Well, it's sad for the child's -- "

"Well, I can't do anything about that. That's history," Trutanich said, cutting in. "But you know my job is doing the city's work. We did our job."

The new city attorney rode into office July 1 with a steely promise to be Los Angeles' ethical and fiscal watchdog, and the wrongful death suit could have cost the city millions of dollars. But when the photo of Trutanich's high five was posted online, his staff feared, it would put him in a bad light in what one council member described as a "tumultuous" first month.

Charting an assertive course that has unsettled more than a few city officials, Trutanich has questioned routine police procedures, halted all ongoing legal agreements pending his review and threatened planning commissioners after they rejected his advice.

Although his predecessor, Rocky Delgadillo, rarely appeared in council chambers, Trutanich has already shown up twice -- dropping the vague bombshell on his second visit that his investigation into money that the city spent to assist the Michael Jackson memorial had "taken an unanticipated turn that raises both civil and criminal aspects."

And both the current and former city controller have criticized Trutanich for not acting more quickly on his campaign pledge to end Delgadillo's lawsuit to block an audit of the city attorney's worker's compensation program. Former Controller Laura Chick, who supported Trutanich, called him a demagogue and a liar on Doug McIntyre's radio show on KABC-AM (790).

At the same time, Trutanich has won praise for his sometimes innovative approach -- as when he called in a retired judge to mediate a dispute over the L.A. Marathon -- and for digging into the work of transforming the city attorney's office into a respected law firm.

He carts home briefing books on the city's billboard problems and the explosion of medical marijuana dispensaries and is developing a curriculum for a training academy for his lawyers.

At his first executive management board meeting, he told his staff anyone who mentioned politics would "not be here next week." In the evenings, Trutanich has sometimes walked the three floors of the office to greet his staff and says he wants everyone "to have a sense of belonging so that we can get our job done." Last weekend, he hosted hundreds of his employees at a barbecue on the picnic grounds of the L.A. Police Academy and took a turn in the dunking booth.

Shelley Smith, president of the Los Angeles City Attorneys Assn., a union that represents some 500 rank-and-file city attorneys, said career lawyers were pleased by Trutanich's move to elevate two respected office veterans to head the criminal and civil divisions. Others have appreciated Trutanich's laudatory e-mails thanking attorneys and support staff for their work.

"There is an optimism that, irrespective of the budget crisis and the resource constraints that all of us will have to work with, that the new city attorney will be working to make sure it's a terrific professional place to be," Smith said.

Chief deputy Carter noted that "any manager of a large law firm needs to get actively involved in how that firm is being operated on a day-to-day basis.

"He's not just sitting in the driver's seat, he's gotten out, opened up the hood and reached into the engine of this office -- [asking] what does this do? How do we need to fix it and make it better?" Carter said.

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