In a development that took Los Angeles leaders by surprise late Friday, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo issued a legal opinion challenging the City Council's attempt to ease term limits so members would be able to serve an additional four years.
The opinion said that a ballot measure proposed by the council for the Nov. 7 election was flawed because it contained not only a term limits provision but others aimed at curtailing the influence of lobbyists.
In essence, Delgadillo's opinion stated that term limits and the other reforms should not be linked and doing so could invite a legal challenge.
The reason, Delgadillo wrote, is that the term limits provision -- permitting council members to serve a maximum of three terms instead of two -- requires voters to amend the City Charter. But the ethics provisions would be more appropriate for the council to directly enact, which it could do at any time.
The package of ballot measures was presented to the council earlier this month by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters.
Chamber and league leaders believe that the current limits discourage officials from tackling some of the city's most complex problems because they know the time it would take to resolve them might outlast their terms.
Ethics issues were added to give the package a better chance of passing because California voters have historically embraced the concept of term limits.
The civic leaders even titled the provision to avoid mentioning "term limits." Instead, it was called the City Government Responsibility, Lobbying and Ethics Reform Act.
The council does not have to accept Delgadillo's advice. It would be unusual for lawmakers to reject the opinion, however.
Council President Eric Garcetti was unavailable for comment but an aide released a statement saying his "office has received the report and is in the process of evaluating its contents."
"I haven't read it, but I'm disappointed," said Councilman Herb Wesson, who has been pushing for the term limits extension. "I think it would be dumb of us to think that the businesspeople who put this together didn't have their legal eagles put it together."
Wesson said he would talk with colleagues Monday over how they should proceed. The council has until Friday to vote on whether to put the measures on the ballot.
Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Ron Gastelum also said that he had not yet seen the opinion but that he was aware of it.
Gastelum said he thought the opinion "flies in the face of the history and tradition of what we do here in California -- the people enact law all the time. There are many laws that the Legislature is empowered to do but for many reasons the electorate decides to do."
When the 15-member council agreed to consider the ballot measure, it opted not to include the three officials who hold citywide office: the mayor, the controller and the city attorney.
Delgadillo's office immediately rejected the suggestion that politics had anything to do with the opinion.
"Whether it helps or hurts term limits extension was not a factor in our decision," said Nick Velasquez, a Delgadillo spokesman.
He added: "The city attorney's office is not going to rubber-stamp measures. This office was tasked with issuing a legal opinion about these proposals."
Council officials, however, said the attorney's office was asked only to shape the measure's language into proper legal form.
"We asked him to draft the ballot measure; I don't think we asked for his opinion," said Councilman Dennis Zine, who said he would review the opinion next week.