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L.A. planning commissioner explains billboard vote in response to Trutanich’s terse letter

July 15, 2009 |  1:51 pm

The pugnacious tone of City Atty. Carmen Trutanich’s letter to members of the Los Angeles Planning Commission last week has raised eyebrows around City Hall – and a city planning commissioner said today that some of the language in the letter’s last paragraph was “disturbing and frankly a little bit frightening.”

Trutanich skewered commissioners in his missive after they ignored his request Thursday to delay deliberations on a plan for placing 40,000 square feet of billboards and other outdoor signs on the Los Angeles Convention Center so his assistants had more time to study it as part of a broader billboard policy review.

In his July 10 letter, the new city attorney told commissioners “there are limits to the discretion and governmental immunities that you enjoy as public officials. I will not hesitate to act in the future if it appears that you are aiding and abetting unlawful conduct despite my contrary advice.”

Speaking to the City Council this morning during a routine item on his reappointment, Planning Commissioner Sean Burton said the last paragraph of the letter “implied there might be some personal liability for the commissioners,” in part because of the use of the aiding, abetting and unlawful action.

“I will tell you as an individual, we don’t have a staff, we don’t have a legal defense fund. We do this as commissioners because we’re trying to do the right thing for the city,” Burton told council members. Later Burton said although he believed the whole matter was a misunderstanding, he personally viewed the letter’s last paragraph as “inappropriate” and added that it sounded to him “like a threat.”

"I dont' think its necessary to threaten people," Councilwoman Jan Perry said of the Trutanich letter. "They give of their time freely on behalf of the city."

Explaining the panel’s actions to the Council, Burton said the Convention Center matter was expiring in two days, and that the city attorney’s office had not put forward any specific reason for the continuance. A deputy city attorney at the meeting told commissioners the office would be able to weigh in on the case as it moved its way through the legislative process to the Council, which must give final approval.

“Our goal was to move it forward and let the council debate and discuss how they wanted to move forward, so there was clearly no disrespect intended,” Burton said.

Councilman Ed Reyes said he was troubled by the contradiction between Trutanich’s letter and the advice commissioners were given by the deputy city attorney during the meeting. The letter implied “they did something illegal when they didn’t,” he said.

“I think we have to be careful about how we treat our citizenry when they volunteer their time to give us their expertise,” Reyes said. “They don’t need more pressure when they are being threatened by the very same city attorney’s office that is supposed to be protecting and advising them.”

-- Maeve Reston at L.A. City Hall 

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