If approved, the appointment of Andrea Ordin as county counsel for Los Angeles will give the county a rare opportunity to repair a notoriously ineffective legal operation with a long, shabby record of thwarting the public interest. The Board of Supervisors, which is expected to take up her hiring today, should approve Ordin and direct her to transform the office into one that fully comprehends its duty to Los Angeles residents.
For years, the county counsel's office, which provides legal advice to the county government, has encouraged the supervisors and county agencies to conduct their work in private. Often citing the fear of litigation, the counsel's office has hidden county documents from public scrutiny and advised the board to meet in secret. In one infamous private session, the supervisors discussed plans for quashing a ballot initiative; their lawyer, who was present, suggested they could head off the initiative if he merely refused to perform his obligation to certify the ballot measure, thus using secrecy to hide illegality. Then, to add stupidity to its list of offenses, the county mistakenly released a batch of records that brought the matter to public attention.
That may be the most egregious example that has come to light, but it's hardly the only one. Requests for public information are regularly denied, suppressing revelations embarrassing to the county and forcing taxpayers to pay for litigation to deny themselves the ability to monitor their government. Some child welfare advocates have accused the county counsel's office of stymieing investigations into foster care. And there are hints of absurdity as well: In one recent case, the office hired outside lawyers to pursue $1,004 owed it by a Compton woman; the law firm billed almost $13,000.
Ordin has the background and ability to change that culture and, with one exception, has compiled an encouraging record. She is articulate and forceful, with experience that includes stints as U.S. attorney for the Central District, as California's chief assistant attorney general and as a member of the Christopher Commission, which proposed the historic overhaul of the Los Angeles Police Department. Most recently, she has served as a member of the city's Police Commission, and there was involved in the one case with some worrisome implications.
In 2006, the commissioners quietly began withholding the names of police officers involved in shootings. That decision undermined decades of openness by the LAPD, and advocates for police accountability still are trying to overturn it. But one disagreement is not the basis for opposition. Ordin's ample skills and her well-deserved reputation are just what the county counsel's office needs to regain the public's trust.