Director of Legal Clinic Faults Bidding Process

Times Staff Writer

The leader of a Santa Monica-funded legal clinic providing free advice to low-income people has attacked a city bidding process that picked another agency to conduct a tenant-advocacy program in Santa Monica.

The complaint, lodged by Merced Martin, executive director of Westside Legal Services, is part of his organization's dispute with the Santa Monica city attorney's office over the operation of the legal program for low-income residents.

City Atty. Robert M. Myers said that he may encourage the City Council to open up bidding in the next fiscal year to encourage competition for the city's entire legal service program for poor people, including the $117,000 yearly contract held by Westside Legal Services.

Martin, in turn, said, "We know we are doing a good job, even though the city attorney's office seems to think otherwise."

The latest disagreement between the two groups occurred last month when the City Council awarded a $45,000 contract to the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles to conduct the tenant-advocacy program through June 30 for low-income city residents, with emphasis on renters in the Pico neighborhood--an area already served by Westside Legal Services.

To Begin Tuesday

Based in central Los Angeles, the foundation is scheduled to open the program at 4 p.m. Tuesday at 1928 14th St., Santa Monica. The office will be open from 4 to 8 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays and from 2 to 6 p.m. Fridays.

Martin said that his organization would have applied for the funding had he known that the city was willing to drop a requirement that the program serve low-income landlords as well as renters.

After the bidding was completed, Martin said, the city agreed to set up a voucher system for landlords. The system would give them access to a maximum of $250 for private attorneys to represent them in rent disputes.

"We did not apply for the grant because we felt there was a conflict of interest in representing both landlords and tenants," Martin said. "When the city changed the requirement after the bidding was closed, the procedure was unfair to our organization."

Myers confirmed that the requirement to represent landlords was changed, but not with the intent of deterring Westside Legal Services from applying for the grant.

In negotiating the contract, Myers said, representatives of the Legal Aid Foundation indicated that there would be a possible conflict of interest in representing both tenants and landlords.

"As with all city contracts," Myers said, "there is flexibility in the negotiations. The problem with Westside Legal Services is that their leaders did not apply for the grant and thus did not make their objections to the provision known to the city."

Myers said that his primary complaint against Westside Legal Services is that although the city provides more than 70% of its funding ($117,000 of the total $159,000 yearly budget), only 50% of its more than 1,200 clients are from Santa Monica. The rest come from Culver City, Venice and West Los Angeles.

Variety of Services

Located in the Santa Monica Mall, Westside Legal Services has been providing a variety of legal services for low-income people since June, 1981, when it was formed by merging the Legal Aid Society, a program run by the Santa Monica Bar Assn., and El Centro Legal, a group of Latino law students at UCLA.

The organization gives legal advice and, when necessary, legal representation to people with problems dealing with housing, immigration, employment, welfare and debt collection.

Myers recently released documents showing that his representative, Deputy City Atty. Martin T. Tachiki, doubted the organization's willingness to make changes in its program to more effectively serve low-income people, as recommended by consulting attorney Valerie Vanaman.

A former attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation now in private practice, Vanaman has conducted two studies of the agency's program at the request of the city attorney's office.

Leaders of Westside Legal Services liked the first study but, according to Martin, were dismayed by the second.

In the first study, conducted in July, 1983, Vanaman recommended, among other changes, closer supervision of volunteer law students, more case work for the executive director-attorney and development of a more extensive law library.

"We had no problems with her first report," Martin said. "She was specific in her recommendations and we enacted them readily."

Vanaman's second study, made last July, attacked the organization's efforts to hire more staff--it has two attorneys, a paralegal and support staff.

She maintained that the organization would be better off increasing its use of volunteer attorneys. It has since doubled the use of volunteer attorneys, from 6 to 12, Martin said.

Martin did not agree that the organization's permanent staff should not be increased. "There is a limit to the uses of volunteer help," he said. "With our current small staff, attorneys have to think twice about taking on new cases when they already are loaded with on-going cases."

Evaluation Urged

Vanaman also urged Westside Legal Services to conduct a case evaluation to determine whether it could handle more cases and suggested that it cooperate more fully with other legal services groups, including the Legal Aid Foundation.

Martin said the recommended evaluation was not necessary. "It is going to cost $3,000 to $5,000. Evaluation is a bogus idea. They know we are doing a good job."

Harold M. Brody, then vice president, now president of the board Westside Legal Services, wrote a letter Nov. 29 to Myers attacking what he said were Vanaman's biases and lack of objectivity in assessing the agency. Her report last July, he said, was "factually unsupportable and methodologically unsound."

In a sharp reply, Tachiki defended Vanaman's evaluation and warned the agency that Westside Legal Services had until Jan. 15 to implement her recommendations "or WLS will be deemed to be in breach of contract."

To Hire Consultant

Shortly after receiving Tachiki's letter, leaders of the organization announced plans to hire a consultant to conduct the case evaluation. Martin said that he hopes to hire someone this month and have the evaluation completed by April.

Myers said that he may recommend to the City Council that the financial grant to Westside Legal Services be limited to six months in the next fiscal year, beginning July 1, to allow other agencies to compete for the task of providing legal services to poor people.

"I have informed the council in prior years of my view that legal services can most effectively be operated by one agency, rather than by many," Myers said. "By limiting funding to six months, we could at least have time to see what kind of proposals for legal services are out there."

Martin said that he is not afraid to compete with other agencies for the city contract. He added that other agencies who try to compete with Westside Legal Services for funding should expect competition from Westside Legal Services for funding in their areas.

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