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Sparks fly as L.A. city attorney candidates clash at radio debate

February 5, 2013 |  4:32 pm

Three of the four candidates on the March 5 ballot for Los Angeles city attorney squared off in a feisty, 30-minute debate Tuesday that broke little new ground but may have reached a high-water mark for vitriol.

Moderator Larry Mantle, host of KPCC-FM (89.3) radio’s AirTalk, which streamed the debate live, had to step in repeatedly as the three candidates sparred vigorously, often interrupting each other as they struggled for advantage.

Mantle put incumbent City Atty. Carmen Trutanich on the defensive right off the bat by making his first question about Trutanich’s 2009 pre-election pledge to serve two full terms as city attorney before seeking another office.  Trutanich famously broke that pledge to run for district attorney last year and, after failing to make the runoff, decided to seek reelection to the city post. How, Mantle wanted to know, could voters trust any other pledges he might make?

"I’m not pledging anything. I learned my lesson," Trutanich responded before repeating his concession that his race for D.A. "was a mistake."

His leading challenger, former state legislator Mike Feuer, talked briefly about his wide range of experience, including his authorship of some of the state’s strong gun controls, before  launching an attack on Trutanich’s "failed leadership."

Feuer said, for example, that Trutanich could have helped the city resolve its problems regulating medical marijuana dispensaries "years ago,"  instead of  belatedly asking voters to decide among two, and likely three, competing ballot measures to settle the matter.  He said Trutanich had insisted on a tough ordinance because he "wanted to get rid of" all the dispensaries.  "A balance should have been struck," Feuer said. Trutanich blamed Feuer, as a member of the Legislature, for failing to enact state laws that would have provided guidance to cities and counties struggling to grapple with the issue. (Voters approved a measure legalizing marijuana for medical purposes in 1996 but the federal government still considers any use of marijuana illegal.)

Yet it was possible during the discussion to get glimpses of the contrasting priorities of the three candidates who appeared, all attorneys with very different career backgrounds.

Trutanich was a deputy district attorney, then headed a private law firm in San Pedro, before winning his first bid for elected office in 2009.

Feuer ran a nonprofit legal aid group, Bet Tzedek, before winning a seat on the L.A. City Council and then becoming a state Assemblyman representing the Westside. He has raised the most money of all the candidates and is widely considered Trutanich’s strongest challenger.

Private attorney Greg Smith has won millions representing police officers and firefighters in discrimination, injury and whistle blower suits against L.A. and other area local governments. He has put at least $620,000 of his own money into the race so far and was the first of the candidates to launch television advertising, beginning earlier this week.

The fourth candidate, private attorney Noel Weiss, has spent no money to get his message to voters and was not included in Tuesday’s noontime radio debate.

Trutanich said he has been “the most successful city attorney” in many years, claiming to have saved city taxpayers more than $250 million in potential settlements or jury awards while dealing with city budget cuts that, over his four years in office, reduced the number of attorneys on his staff from 647 to 475. And he knocked Feuer for his lack of experience as a prosecutor.

Feuer shot back that leadership was more important than time in a courtroom and pointed out that some on the City Council want to hire their own lawyer rather than rely on the city attorney’s office for advice. He also blamed Trutanich for cutting back on the popular neighborhood prosecutor program, which put a city lawyer in field offices, and promised to reinvigorate the practice.

Smith said Feuer had been part of the "dysfunction" in the Legislature. "All he is going to do is come down here and turn Los Angeles into a little Sacramento," Smith said.

But Smith found himself on the defensive when Mantle asked how he could serve the city after all the years he has spent battling it on behalf of individual public safety workers with grievances against their employer.

"I’m going to fight no matter what" whenever he sees "discrimination," Smith said and argued he knew how to win cases and could do so for the city.

The three also disagreed on how to deal with another issue facing the city -- how to best regulate boarding houses, group homes and other living arrangements among unrelated adults. The council, pushed to act after people were murdered at an unlicensed boarding house in Northridge recently, declined to act on a crackdown proposal and called for a special committee to look further into the issue.

Feuer said the proposal that had been before the council was a "work in progress" and "not ready for prime time" and he agreed with its decision to send the matter to a committee. Trutanich blamed the state (and Feuer) for not providing better laws on such living arrangements and said the council "needs to act quickly" on its own proposal.

Smith said it wasn’t the city attorney’s job to propose policies, only to advise the council, but said his personal belief was that in this case the council "should move as quickly as possible."


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-- Jean Merl