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Judge kills measure for separate L.A. health department

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A judge has preemptively struck down a ballot measure that would force the city of Los Angeles to launch its own health department separate from the county's.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael P. Linfield ruled Friday that the measure scheduled for the June ballot would conflict with state law if passed and would "impermissibly interfere with essential government functions."

The measure was advocated by the nonprofit AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which is a major provider of AIDS- and HIV-related health services for the county's health department, but has also frequently butted heads with county leaders.

The foundation collected nearly 70,000 signatures last year — enough to place the measure on the ballot. If passed, it would force the city to end its public health contracts with Los Angeles County and set up its own municipal health department within 120 days.

The nonprofit argued that the county's health department is a clunky bureaucracy that underserves the city of Los Angeles. But city and county officials characterized the initiative as a potential fiscal and public health catastrophe, and both governments filed lawsuits against each other in a complicated legal maneuver to stop it from going to voters.

Linfield rejected the argument that the proposal would create a public health crisis. But he found that the measure's implementation timeline would conflict with state law and that the proposal would interfere with the city's "ability to manage its own financial affairs" by dictating that the new department's costs would be paid by certain fees.

County public health Director Dr. Jonathan Fielding said in a statement that he was delighted with the judge's decision.

"Judge Linfield's ruling ensures that comprehensive public health services will be in place to protect and promote health throughout Los Angeles County," he said.

City Atty. Mike Feuer issued a statement saying that the ruling "protects the public's health and saves precious taxpayer dollars from being wasted on a vote on a patently unlawful initiative."

The AIDS foundation did not intervene to defend the initiative in court. Instead, in November the foundation began the process of petitioning for an alternative initiative, this one only requiring the city to form a citizens' commission to oversee the health services it receives from the county. The city would also be required to study the feasibility of setting up its own health agency.

Foundation President Michael Weinstein said Friday that the group made a decision to focus on the alternative ballot measure rather than fighting for the first one in court.

"Based upon the level of opposition the city had to having its own health department, we felt we would head in a different direction," he said. "...The bottom line, from our point of view is, the discussion of how healthcare is delivered in Los Angeles is vital."

The group is still gathering signatures on the second ballot measure, and Weinstein said he expects to have enough to qualify in time for the November ballot.

A coalition of labor and business groups had formed to oppose the proposal to create a separate city health department. Scott Mann, a spokesman for that group, said the coalition had not yet taken a position on the alternative measure. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has also not so far taken a position on it, a spokesman said.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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