Hard-charging Trutanich looks for new challenge
Taking the microphone during a recent hearing on his department’s budget, L.A. City Atty. Carmen Trutanich did not hold back.
The City Council’s budget committee was dealing with a $238-million deficit, and Trutanich’s office had managed to avoid a new round of cuts. Still, Trutanich went on the offensive, saying years of furloughs and reductions had pushed lawyers in his office to the brink.
Trutanich raised hackles when he warned the city could be overwhelmed by costly lawsuits and workers’ compensation claims if his office isn’t given more money in the future. “You can’t defend the city with no army,” he said. “If I wanted to bankrupt this city, if these lawyers didn’t care, and wanted to stop [working] it would be an overnight event.”
That in-your-face message was typical Trutanich. During nearly three years in office as L.A.'s top lawyer, he has brought a hard-charging style to such issues as billboards, marijuana dispensaries and political protests.
At times, the approach has helped Trutanich -- now a candidate for county district attorney -- secure key victories for his office. But it has also left him open to criticism that he is more wrecking ball than shrewd legal tactician. “He’s like a bull in a China shop,” said Jackie Lacey, who is running against him in Tuesday’s election. “You have to be able to work with people. You have to be respected.”
Trutanich brushes aside such comments, saying that as the city’s lawyer he offers “non-political” advice in line with the law, even when it makes his client, the public or talk radio show hosts unhappy.
Instead, he portrays his tenure as city attorney as a struggle to impose order on a frequently chaotic City Hall.
When he arrived in July 2009, budget officials were demanding layoff lists. His team of land-use lawyers were bogged down with more than 20 lawsuits filed by billboard companies. And council members were increasingly alarmed by a profusion of medical marijuana dispensaries.
“When we took office there were 1,000 pot shops, the police were under a consent decree and we couldn’t even enforce our own billboard law,” he said.
Trutanich sought to reassert control over illegal signs by securing an outright ban on billboards, until a higher court weighed in. But he infuriated downtown Councilwoman Jan Perry by calling for Anschutz Entertainment Group -- the politically powerful developer of Staples Center and L.A. Live complex -- to delay installation of new outdoor signs until a federal judge agreed. He also drew fire from some legal experts for getting a businessman jailed after an unpermitted supergraphic ad was displayed on the man’s office building.
A spokesman for district attorney candidate Alan Jackson said Trutanich was too extreme in his handling of the issue. But Trutanich contends his tough approach worked. The city’s billboard law was upheld on appeal. And between 750 and 1,000 unpermitted signs -- some several stories tall -- have been taken down.
“The change in the landscape for billboards has been almost entirely due to the city attorney’s office,” said Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, who is not endorsing a D.A. candidate. “There were hundreds of [illegal] supergraphic signs ... and they are gone.”
Reviews have been more mixed on Trutanich’s handling of medical marijuana. How cities should regulate distribution of pot has been a gray area since voters passed a 1996 state initiative legalizing medical marijuana.
In 2009, Trutanich pushed for a law to curb the number of dispensaries and ban over-the-counter sales of medical marijuana while allowing collectives of patients and caregivers to cultivate and share the drug for personal use. Council members, who pointedly reminded Trutanich that they set public policy, not him, took a more lenient approach that allowed sales to continue.
The resulting ordinance was partly invalidated by a federal judge who ruled it violated the dispensaries’ rights.
Trutanich said the city could have avoided dozens of lawsuits if council members “had followed us from the very beginning.” Dispensary owner Yamileth Bolanos disagreed, saying Trutanich’s office could have drafted a more workable ordinance for the city if it collaborated with the medical marijuana community.
“We are willing to keep working with them, but they won’t work with us,” she said. “We campaigned for him. But as soon as he was in, he turned his back on us.”
Councilman Jose Huizar, who has teamed up with Trutanich to promote an outright ban on storefront pot shops, credited the city attorney for making the issue a priority. “He came in and was clear and forceful,” said Huizar, whose constituents have complained about a concentration of dispensaries in his Eastside district.
Trutanich also points to his office’s work on sexual assault cases, clean-water lawsuits and a case accusing Deutsche Bank of being a massive slumlord. His office says it won 112 of the 129 civil cases that went to trial since he took office.
But civil rights attorneys say Trutanich went too far in dealing with political protesters by seeking jail time for violations that previous prosecutors treated as infractions.
Attorney Cynthia Anderson-Barker was one of the lawyers who represented nine students arrested for blocking traffic during a 2010 immigration protest. She said her clients’ cases should have been resolved in informal meetings, not the lengthy criminal court proceedings initiated by Trutanich’s office. “It was a total waste of resources on these students,” she said.
The charges against the students ultimately were dropped, as were similar cases against Cal State Northridge students arrested during protests over budget cuts. Trutanich said his office’s criminal prosecutions offered an “educational moment” for the students. “I want people to be free to talk and express themselves,” he said. “But they have to understand that we live in an ordered liberty.”
Among the challenges facing Trutanich’s office in recent years have been federal investigations involving several city agencies and a 15% reduction in his staff.
Asked if linking possible city bankruptcy with his budget needs at last month’s hearing rubbed council members the wrong way, Trutanich said: “I don’t care. It’s truthful.”