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End the fight at L.A. City Hall

The City Council should settle the case pitting the controller against the city attorney. Failing that, the council should send voters a ballot measure clarifying the controller's powers.

September 09, 2009

City Controller Wendy Greuel and City Atty. Carmen Trutanich have accomplished something remarkable. They have given new life to a dispute between their predecessors that should have expired when the new term started July 1. Each made a campaign issue of cooperating to resolve the case of City of Los Angeles vs. Laura Chick, but each now claims the other is not cooperating. It's as if the contentious ghosts of termed-out politicians refused to leave and now possess the bodies of the new officeholders.

Today, the City Council can finally do what Greuel and Trutanich apparently cannot: consign the suit to the past by settling the case. Unfortunately, the council's record in handling the dispute so far has been poor.

The substance seems like ancient history. Then-Controller Laura Chick wanted to audit the workers' compensation function in then-City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo's office, but Delgadillo argued that she lacked the authority to subpoena his deputies, and he sued Chick. Trutanich disagreed with Delgadillo's action and invited Greuel in to audit. But a judge tentatively ruled for Delgadillo. Unless the council settles, that ruling may become permanent this week, and the city will be stuck with a precedent that limits the controller's authority. That would be bad; it's not what voters wanted when they adopted a charter with expanded controller powers.

Trutanich doesn't want to give up the city's courtroom victory because, he argues, that could open the city to a claim by Chick's lawyer for legal fees, and Trutanich has been adamant about ending the city's reputation as an easy mark for litigants and lawyers. Trutanich's zeal for protecting the city's purse is laudable, but this is a case in which his client, the council, bears much of the blame. It offered to mediate, but dragged its collective feet a year ago until it was too late for an easy and obvious solution: a ballot measure in which voters clarify the controller's powers. Instead, some council members tried to broaden the dispute to either protect themselves from audit or win some new power to audit the controller.

Chick's cause was righteous, even though a judge ruled against her. If there is a bill to pay, the council should pay it. But perhaps there shouldn't even be a bill to pay; Chick said at the beginning of the dispute that her lawyer would waive his fees. Sticking to that commitment would keep the controller's powers intact and the city's bottom line protected. Failing that, and failing a settlement, the council should finally step up and send voters a clarifying -- and limited -- ballot measure.

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