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L.A. Council to look at use of lawyers other than City Attorney

July 19, 2011 | 12:51 pm

Trutanich Posing a direct challenge to Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to seek a report on other ways of obtaining legal services at City Hall.

On a 13 to 0 vote, the council asked for an analysis of how other cities across the nation hire their legal teams –- and of the possibility of separating the city’s misdemeanor criminal prosecutions from the work of crafting legislation and representing the city in lawsuits.
The request for a study was spearheaded by Councilwoman Jan Perry, who has repeatedly voiced unhappiness with Trutanich’s office regarding planning issues in and around her district. She said she was frustrated with Trutanich’s handling of “complex transactions.” And she accused his legal team 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, University of Southern California and L.A. Live, the entertainment complex owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group.

Perry’s legislative deputy, Marie Rumsey, said Trutanich’s office had also argued against a billboard district for Wilshire Boulevard that is supported by Councilman Herb Wesson.

“At the end of the day, when we cast our vote one way or the other ... we are the ones who make policy,” Perry said.

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 effort to “remove the independence” of the city attorney.

In a letter to the council, Carter warned that the changes being studied would require a vote by the electorate to amend the City Charter. “The ultimate purpose for such a proposed motion appears to be another attempt to question the wisdom of and change the longstanding provisions of the Charter mandating an independent, elected city attorney, which can only be accomplished through the approval of voters,” he wrote.

Perry has a history of criticizing the city’s legal teams. When she disagreed with City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo on the city’s legal disputes over homelessness, she retained her own lawyers to advocate 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,” said Alarcon.

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 has waited for two and a half years for an ordinance to be drafted that deals with valet parking.

“I think we’ve got a city attorney who’s a brilliant courtroom tactician,” he said. “But we need to also make sure we are also served well. I’m ... saying the function of city government has to be served in an expeditious manner.”


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Photo: L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich. Credit: Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times