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L.A. Council explores legal options beyond city attorney

Council orders a report on the possibility of having a separate legal team to draft legislation and represent the city in lawsuits. The vote draws sharp criticism from the city attorney's office.

July 20, 2011|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times
  • City Atty. Carmen Trutanich currently is responsible for misdemeanor prosecutions as well as drafting legislation and representing the city in lawsuits.
City Atty. Carmen Trutanich currently is responsible for misdemeanor… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

A Los Angeles councilwoman unhappy with City Atty. Carmen Trutanich's handling of billboard issues persuaded her colleagues Tuesday to seek a report on other ways of obtaining legal services at City Hall.

In a direct challenge to Trutanich, the council voted 13 to 0 to ask for a report on how cities across the nation put together their legal teams –- and on the possibility of separating the city attorney's misdemeanor criminal prosecutions from the work of crafting legislation and representing the city in lawsuits.

The push for a study was spearheaded by Councilwoman Jan Perry, who has repeatedly criticized Trutanich and his staffers over planning issues in and around her downtown district.

Perry accused his office of crossing a line from providing legal advice into engaging in political advocacy, by arguing against billboard districts and various forms of signage at the Wilshire Grand hotel, USC and L.A. Live, the entertainment complex owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group.

"At the end of the day, when we cast our vote one way or the other ... we are the ones who make policy," said Perry, who has announced plans to run for mayor in 2013.

The legal analysis will be prepared by Chief Legislative Analyst Gerry Miller, who is a council employee.

The move immediately drew a sharp response from Trutanich's chief deputy, William Carter, who called it an attempt to intimidate the office and prevent it from issuing independent legal opinions.

Carter said council members have been trying to remove the power granted by the City Charter to the city attorney's office since the 1920s. And he defended his office's handling of outdoor advertising laws.

Before Trutanich took office, "the federal courts had enjoined us from enforcing our own billboard laws," Carter said. "So the new city attorney proposed a new course that complied with the law. Some people perceive that as being a policy decision, when in fact it was merely a legal recommendation."

Perry has a history of criticizing the city's legal teams. She disagreed with Trutanich's predecessor, Rocky Delgadillo, on the city's legal disputes over homelessness, retaining her own lawyers to represent her position. She also expressed unhappiness with the city's handling of medical marijuana dispensaries.

Her proposal drew questions from Councilmen Jose Huizar and Richard Alarcon, who said they wanted to know what problem the council was trying to fix. "I would be more open to doing this if I had more clarification as to what exactly we're trying to do," Alarcon said.

Council President Eric Garcetti said he favored the study, describing Los Angeles County — which has a district attorney and a separate legal team to represent county government — as a model that works well. Garcetti complained that he had waited for two and a half years for an ordinance to be drafted that deals with valet parking.

Council members could not alter the city attorney's duties without crafting a ballot measure to amend the City Charter — and then persuading voters to approve it. Still, the decision to seek a study on other cities' legal teams showed the level of dissatisfaction with Trutanich from some on the council floor.

"I think we've got a city attorney who's a brilliant courtroom tactician," Garcetti said. "But we need to also make sure we are served well…. The function of city government has to be served in an expeditious manner."

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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