When Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge left office, he left nothing behind.
Documents kept by LaBonge and his staff members were nowhere to be found, his successor, David Ryu, said after taking office last year. And at a July hearing, Renee Weitzer -- a former LaBonge planning staffer now working for Ryu -- said her old files were gone.
“All our files from the past administration have been destroyed,” Weitzer told planning staff, according to a video recorded for the law firm of attorney Robert P. Silverstein. “So, basically, I have to start from scratch.”
State law restricts what kinds of city documents can be destroyed and when. But city officials say there is no municipal policy that governs what council members do with their files when they leave office. LaBonge says he did nothing wrong.
The absence of such rules has raised questions about whether L.A. is complying with the state law. Now the fate of those files -- reams of documents that LaBonge staff members sought to have destroyed -- has become an issue in a legal battle over a Sherman Oaks development.
Attorneys fighting to overturn the Il Villaggio Toscano project argue the city has failed to turn over all of the city documents that a Superior Court judge ordered them to provide nearly a year and a half ago.
In court filings, they say the missing documents include memos from the office of LaBonge, who was on the council when the controversial development in his Sherman Oaks-to-Silver Lake district was approved.
The city has fired back in court, saying that it provided everything that was required. But Silverstein, one of the attorneys trying to halt the Il Villaggio Toscano, has expressed concern that evidence may have been destroyed when LaBonge left office.
Questions about the missing records were first reported by the Los Feliz Ledger. If evidence was trashed, Silverstein said, “it cheats the public out of their ability to prove their case” against the city.
His firm is pressing for the court to impose financial penalties and order a schedule for providing the records. It is also asking a judge to set a hearing to decide whether to hold the city in contempt.
More than six months after Ryu took office, some documents were found. Dozens of boxes were turned over this week to Ryu by the city attorney’s office, which said one of its lawyers had located the files in city archives and had been reviewing them in connection with a court case.
Those 35 boxes had been marked to be destroyed, said Todd Gaydowski, who oversees city records management. Public records obtained by retired attorneys Michael H. Miller and Stephanie Scher show that a LaBonge staffer asked that several batches of material -- totaling 113 boxes -- be burned. Gaydowski said he was unsure if the other 78 boxes sent there had ultimately been destroyed.
LaBonge said no one had told him to save any records before he left. “There were no instructions given to me other than to get out of the office,” he said.
LaBonge said he had not gotten rid of files to hinder Ryu or to hide any wrongdoing. The former councilman left office after a bitterly contested race that pitted his former chief of staff against Ryu. That campaign included sharp criticism of LaBonge himself and his actions as a councilman, including how he had spent discretionary money allocated to his council office.
His former legislative deputy, Lisa Schechter, also said that city departments told them months earlier that they needed to clear out of the office, but didn’t mention any rules regarding what to do with files.
California state law generally allows city governments to destroy some city records if lawmakers and the city attorney approve, but not if the documents are unduplicated and less than two years old.
Los Angeles city rules also set forth how long its departments are supposed to hold on to different kinds of records, stating that most must be retained for at least two years. But City Clerk Holly Wolcott said there is no standard way that council members are supposed to handle their files when they leave office.
Miller and Scher, both Los Feliz residents who used to represent Southern California cities as attorneys, said they were appalled at the city practice. Neither is affiliated with Silverstein or his firm.
“I can’t believe that the second biggest city in the United States of America apparently doesn’t do it properly,” Miller said.
If a city leaves it up to an elected official to decide what to save, maybe “they toss the stuff that might portray them in a less flattering light,” said San Francisco-based attorney Karl Olson, who has represented media outlets on public records issues.
“They’re taking the law into their own hands and defeating the constitutional right of access,” Olson said.
Ryu introduced a proposal in December to change the city practice, asking for staff recommendations for “a standardized transition plan.”
His staffers are now reviewing the retrieved documents for confidential information before making them publicly available. Silverstein called for an independent investigation of what was destroyed, saying that even if boxes had been recovered, “How do we know those contain everything that had existed?”
City Atty. Mike Feuer declined to respond to questions about whether possible destruction of files from the council office could have eliminated evidence in the Il Villaggio Toscano case.
In a legal filing, city lawyers said the Planning Department was the central location for project records and those documents had already been provided. LaBonge said he hadn’t sought to archive the documents that were sent out for destruction because important records would be available with other departments or electronically.
Silverstein countered that some records would not be kept electronically, including written notes from city officials or mailed correspondence from developers to LaBonge or his staff. Ryu spokesman Estevan Montemayor said that while some of the missing files could be obtained from other departments, their office had been unable to recover detailed notes that Weitzer had taken.
Silverstein represents a group called Sherman Oaks Residents for a Safe Environment, which contends that the as-yet-unbuilt Il Villaggio Toscano development near the 101 and 405 freeways will expose its residents to “a constant plume of dangerous levels of diesel” and create nightmarish traffic.
Development company M. David Paul did not respond to a request for comment on the suit. The Il Villaggio Toscano website says it is right for the site and will have measures to address traffic.