In Defense of the New City Attorney in Los Angeles

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When Carmen Trutanich was sworn in as Los Angeles’ new City Attorney, he promised that he’d pursue wrongdoing in City government. He said he would follow the law—that he’d expect everyone else at City Hall to do the same. Then he reminded us that he’d been elected to do the people’s work, not to be a popular City official.
Well, Trutanich has been in office for just 4 months, and the critics are already after him. Within the past few weeks, The Los Angeles Times ran an unfavorable editorial and an unfair cartoon about him. More recently, The Times published a full-length column, “We Don’t Need a City Bully,” which made a number of critical comments about Mr. Trutanich.
That column was written by Raphael Sonenshein, a respected authority on City government. He acknowledges that, in L. A., the City Attorney is also the City’s prosecutor for misdemeanors. Moreover, he recognizes that there’s a natural tension between those two duties. Thus, his attack on Mr. Trutanich may well be viewed as too harsh. Indeed, it may be viewed as an effort to cast the City Attorney in an unfavorable light before he can publicly charge anyone at City Hall with wrongdoing.
Ostensibly, Sonenshein’s column is a simple sermon on good government in Los Angeles. To test that thesis, readers may ask the following questions:
• When Mayor Riordan degraded the Board of Civil Service Commissioners and claimed its powers for himself, did Sonenshein blast him for abusing the powers of his office? If not, would it be reasonable to ask whether he doesn’t regard Riordan’s action as an abuse of power?
• When Mayor Villaraigosa spent a considerable part of his first year in office trying to get control of the City School System, did Sonenshein say he didn’t understand his job? If not, is it reasonable to ask if he thinks Villaraigosa was, in fact, complying with the Charter?
• When the City Council fails/refuses to oversee the City’s Personnel function, does Sonenshein charge the Council with dereliction of duty? If not, should citizens be told the Council has no duty to concern itself with Human Resource Mismanagement and the waste of tax dollars?
Readers should know that Raphael Sonenshein knows all about the City’s new Charter. He served as the Executive Officer of the appointed Charter Reform Commission. He was appointed by Mayor Riordan, who campaigned vigorously for a City Charter that would put provisions of the Civil Service system in a completely separate book. It was Riordan’s view that City departments should be run like Fortune 500 companies—without any oversight by the Board of Civil Service Commissioners. When the Charter, approved by the voters on June 8, 1999, didn’t facilitate the changes Riordan wanted, he decided to ignore the voters and run City Service as he thinks best. And that’s the way it is in Los Angeles today.
Now, it’s entirely possible that Sonenshein doesn’t embrace all of Riordan’s ideas. But knowing that he served on a Riordan-appointed Commission would seem to support the notion that his attack on Trutanich is something more than a simple good government piece.
Sonenshein’s column ignores the ugly political situation the new City Attorney faced. Trutanich came to City Hall by defeating an “inside” candidate for that office. His election was seen as a threat to the Mayor’s unhealthy, personal control of City government. It meant the Mayor and Council would now have to play by the rules. They’d no longer have a City Attorney they could rely on to permit their unlawful, self-serving practices. That may help us understand why Trutanich is now being attacked!

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