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L.A. doesn't need a city bully

City Atty. Carmen Trutanich has overstepped the bounds of his office, but it's not too late to turn things around.

October 28, 2009|Raphael J. Sonenshein | Raphael J. Sonenshein, chairman of the division of politics, administration and justice at Cal State Fullerton, was executive director of the Los Angeles Appointed Charter Reform Commission. He is the author of "The City at Stake: Secession, Reform, and the Battle for Los Angeles."

Carmen Trutanich took office as Los Angeles city attorney on July 1. Independent of the dominant forces at City Hall, he seemed to promise a breath of fresh air. But instead, he has been misusing the powers of his office.

Trutanich has hinted menacingly of "criminal aspects" to his inquiry of city costs related to the Michael Jackson memorial. In his dispute with AEG and its ads at L.A. Live, he reportedly threatened Councilwoman Jan Perry with jail if she obstructed him and threatened the head of a city department with prosecution if he ignored Trutanich's legal advice.

Clearly, Trutanich does not understand the job.

He is the city's lawyer. According to the City Charter, the city attorney is the "legal advisor to the city, to all city boards, departments, officers and entities ... [and] shall give advice or opinion in writing when requested to do so by any city officer or board."

Being the city's lawyer is crucial to running the government, and the mayor, City Council, commissioners and employees should be able to count on the city attorney for independent opinions, thoughtful interpretations of the charter and good advice on litigation. Being the city's attorney wins few political points, however, because the public hardly knows that this is the main part of the job. This is where the city attorney makes or breaks his or her professional reputation.

The city attorney is also the city's prosecutor, although of misdemeanors only (felonies belong to the county district attorney). The prosecutor role is the fun part. City attorneys with political ambitions love to go after polluters, gangs, billboard companies and others accused of violating city ordinances or laws. The public likes these efforts, and much good can come from them. City Atty. James Hahn, for example, was elected mayor in 2001 at least in part because of his aggressive gang injunctions. Rocky Delgadillo created a popular neighborhood prosecutor program that helped reduce nuisances throughout the city.

There is a natural tension between being the city's lawyer and being the city's prosecutor. What happens when a city attorney likes being the prosecutor much more than being the lawyer? What happens when the city attorney acts as if he is a junior district attorney? The elected district attorney can afford to be just a prosecutor, because the county has an appointed county counsel as its lawyer.

When the city's lawyer turns on the city government and its officers and employees, then the city government no longer has a lawyer. It has a legal adversary, and a city attorney who treats the city government as an adversary invites hostile and costly litigation against the city.

The mayor, the council, commissioners and even city employees might eventually hire their own attorneys, presumably at public expense. This unhappy situation occurred when Delgadillo sued then-Controller Laura Chick, and the question of who pays for Chick's legal help has continued to rock City Hall even now that both officials are out of office.

The most worrisome element of Trutanich's overreach is its chilling effect on political speech at City Hall. L.A. has some unhappy history on this front. When Police Chief William H. Parker was in power from 1950 until his death in 1966, he terrified members of the city government. It took great courage to enter into public debates about the police budget or about police behavior in minority neighborhoods. Los Angeles democracy was stunted until civilian authorities reined in the runaway LAPD. If elected and appointed officials have reason to fear the city attorney, they will limit their political speech.

The bottom line is the classic Latin formulation, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? "Who watches the watchers?" Prosecutorial power is an immense force, and it must be exercised with care, caution and fairness.

Trutanich can still make a fresh start. With the help of the outstanding professional staff he inherited, he can do the steady work of being the city government's lawyer. He can still chase headlines, by going after polluters and other miscreants in his role as city prosecutor, but with fairness and impartiality. Where there is actual wrongdoing by members of the city government, and not just a reluctance to follow his advice, the city attorney should take action. An aggressive and independent city attorney can push the government to be more effective, responsive and accountable. That's one reason the post is an elected one.

But the people should never be quiet in the face of a bully.

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