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L.A. city attorney questions proposed cuts to his staff

January 29, 2010 |  2:25 pm

As Los Angeles city officials weigh the possibility of 1,000 layoffs to close a nearly $200-million budget gap, one of the more eye-popping proposals put forward on a preliminary list this week was the elimination of 100 positions from the office of Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich.

A number of other city departments could be eliminated or severely reduced, including human services and neighborhood empowerment, but it appears that Trutanich is not planning to accept a cut of that magnitude without a fight.

In a letter obtained by The Times, Trutanich argued to the city’s top budget analyst that his office serves a core mission by defending the city in costly lawsuits. He called the proposed cuts to his department disproportionate and “draconian,” and said they did not recognize the money that his office has saved for the city.

During his first six months in office, Trutanich has tackled some of the city’s most vexatious issues,  including the expansion of medical marijuana collectives and proliferation of billboards. But along the way, the San Pedro attorney has tangled with several City Council members — including Jan Perry, who said he threatened to arrest her — city commissioners and AEG Chief Executive Tim Leiweke, a powerful backer of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

The city’s budget is proposed by the mayor and approved by the council, so one had to wonder if this year's budget process might serve to remind the city attorney who controls L.A.’s purse strings.

Chief Deputy City Atty. Bill Carter wouldn’t comment on whether he believed there were politics behind the layoff targets — and the preliminary numbers could change by the end of the day when the city budget analysts are due to release a key report detailing the city’s options.

Trutanich has supported Villaraigosa’s efforts to hire more police, but Carter warned that the elimination of 100 positions would force the office to shift attorneys from prosecuting criminal cases to the civil department, which defends the city from lawsuits.

“It doesn’t matter how many police officers are in the field,” Carter said. “There won’t be a sufficient number of prosecutors to file or handle those cases at a time when the governor is contemplating releasing thousands of inmates in the general population who have a recidivism rate of 70%.”

Carter said that since July 1 the department has won 20 victories in 20 civil trials in which the city would have been liable for nearly $77 million in damages (the office bases that calculation on the last settlement amount offered by the plaintiffs before trial). He added that city lawyers have helped collect $1.6 million in debts owed to the city and the department has spent $700,000 less on outside counsel fees over six months compared with the same period in the previous fiscal year, when Rocky Delgadillo was city attorney.

To expand the resources of the office at a time of budget cuts, Trutanich has also set up a program for young lawyers who want trial experience. Applicants who have passed the bar can apply to serve as volunteer “reserve deputy city attorneys” and try criminal cases for the city after four weeks of training. Fifty attorneys are serving in the program so far. Carter said they won 23 guilty verdicts in 32 trials.

“We’ve been saving money by cutting outside counsel costs, by cutting litigation costs, by trying very difficult cases — trying them and winning them,” Carter said.

-- Maeve Reston at Los Angeles City Hall

Photo: Spencer Weiner, Los Angeles Times