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Fighting over ending a fight

November 14, 2009

The endless loop that is the Los Angeles city controller-city attorney dispute returns on Tuesday to the City Council, which has the power to put the matter to rest but has so far shown not the slightest inclination to do so. With one easy and painless step -- instructing City Atty. Carmen Trutanich to drop the lawsuit -- the whole sorry mess could move toward resolution.

The dispute, you may recall, began when neither Trutanich nor Controller Wendy Greuel held their present offices. Greuel's predecessor, Laura Chick, wanted to audit the workers' compensation function in then-City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo's office. A judge ruled that the controller's audit powers do not extend to programs in the offices of other elected officials. Then both Chick and Delgadillo were termed out, and Greuel asked that the case be dismissed and, along with it, the tentative ruling.

That ruling is a problem for everyone. Its reach appears broad enough to prevent the controller from auditing programs under the control of other elected officials; Greuel correctly is trying to make sure it never takes effect. Trutanich has argued that dropping it would deprive his office of a win and thus put the city on the hook to pay the legal fees that Chick's lawyer, Frederic D. Woocher, racked up. But the city most likely will have to pay Woocher anyway for his time representing Chick, and if the suit is not dropped, it will have to pay Woocher -- or someone else -- to represent Greuel going forward.

So here we are. The council could have resolved the matter on Nov. 6, several days before the next scheduled court hearing, but it had a weeklong recess coming up and couldn't muster a Friday quorum. Besides, some on the council are having their own tiff with Trutanich and don't mind watching him take some heat. Some are reluctant to drop the case and give up the precedent that they believe also would protect them from controller audits. And some, quite frankly, simply don't like Woocher (some too are recusing themselves because Woocher is their lawyer).

Greuel has tried to work with Trutanich to drop the case. But now the city attorney argues that he needs City Council authorization to do so, and he hasn't gotten it. Meanwhile, Greuel needs someone to represent her in court Friday, and it obviously can't be Trutanich. So, City Council, at least pay Woocher to represent Greuel on Friday. Or better yet, drop the suit, knowing that it won't affect your obligation to pay Woocher for his past work. Or do both. Or else continue the exasperating and increasingly costly mess, rather than being the mediators you claim to be.

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