All he asks, Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich frequently says, is that voters judge him on his record.
As he wages an uphill battle to hang onto to his job in the May 21 election, Trutanich rattles off a list of reasons he should be “rehired” to head one of the nation’s largest municipal law firms.
He cites a substantially reduced reliance on costly outside attorneys, favorable outcomes in lawsuits that he says have saved taxpayers more than $300 million and a crackdown on illegal billboards that activists called scourges on their neighborhoods. His legal team also went after tax scofflaws, collecting more than $18 million owed the city, and sued two large banks for allowing homes they had foreclosed on to become blighted and magnets for crime.
And he points out, he’s done that and more despite the city’s severe budget problems that sharply reduced his staff — and forced those remaining to take unpaid days off.
Yet that record also includes some ham-handed approaches that alienated key players at City Hall and a previous 30-year legal career that has sometimes provided fodder for his opponents in this and two other election bids. And where admirers of Trutanich see skilled enthusiasm, detractors find counterproductive combativeness.
Trutanich, 61, ruffled feathers from the start when he won the job four years ago by defeating an insider favored by the mayor, vowing to prosecute any wrongdoing he found among city officials “with the fullest extent of the law.” He had the owner of an illegal “supergraphic” billboard arrested and jailed on $1-million bail, an unusually high amount for the three misdemeanors he was accused of committing.
He demanded that entertainment giant Anschutz Entertainment Group pick up the city’s $3.2-million cost for police and other services at a public memorial service for Michael Jackson (the city ended up with a $1-million donation to its general fund) and loudly clashed with City Councilwoman Jan Perry over signage at LA Live and other matters. (Perry endorsed him over the weekend.) Some lawmakers felt that he usurped their policy-setting authority early in the city’s struggle to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries and, more recently, one proposed the council hire its own lawyer rather than rely on Trutanich.
“I am not here to win a popularity contest,” Trutanich said in his inaugural speech. “I am here to do the people’s work.”
Councilman Jose Huizar, an early Trutanich ally who has endorsed him for reelection, gives him credit for “taking on the tough issues,” including negotiating new leases — after 16 years of controversy — with the merchants at the city’s historic Olvera Street. “It’s a good deal for the merchants and a good deal for the city,” Huizar said.
Trutanich sometimes could have approached things “with a little more finesse,” Huizar said, but he thinks the city attorney’s grown in the job: “He came in very combative and wanting to charge ahead, but he’s changed his style a bit and he’s working more with us.”
Some of that feistiness comes from his roots in working-class San Pedro, says retired restaurateur John Papadakis, a good friend who works out at the local Y with Trutanich and found him to be a challenging racquetball opponent, despite two knee replacements. Trutanich’s father worked in a cannery to feed his wife and seven children in the close-knit port community settled by immigrants from the Adriatic.
“It’s a rough-and-tumble town; a guy’s gotta stand up for himself all the time,” Papadakis said. The gregarious Trutanich has a “big heart and a big personality” and “worked hard at everything he did,” Papadakis added.
That included earning undergraduate and MBA degrees from USC, attending law school at night while working to support his growing family, signing on during the 1980s as a deputy district attorney prosecuting gang members before being assigned to work in a then-new environmental crimes unit. When he left for a private practice, he often used his experience to defend polluters. He said he got his clients to comply with the law and to remedy the harm they had done, a good outcome, he said, for everybody. His opponents have used some of those cases in their campaigns, including his defense of a charter boat captain caught shooting sea lions near Catalina Island in 2004.
Former Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian said Trutanich brings a rare combination to the job: “He’s a great civil lawyer and a great prosecutor.”
Once at City Hall, Trutanich brought on a respected executive team, including two former colleagues from his days in the D.A.'s office and a veteran of the city attorney’s office. He set about putting his stamp on the place after vowing to improve its “professionalism” and beefing up prosecutions of environmental violations. To deal with the severe budget cuts that slashed his staff of more than 600 lawyers to around 500, he turned to recently minted attorneys willing to volunteer their services in exchange for experience trying misdemeanors after some city-provided training. He says the program has saved $2 million.
Trutanich also proposed a system in which some public health and safety violations could be dealt with through a citation, much like a traffic ticket, saving the time and money it takes for each offense to go through court prosecution. Similar systems are already in use in some other cities. The proposal, introduced by Councilman Paul Koretz, is in committee.
Critics, including Feuer, say Trutanich is too narrowly focused on prosecutions and defending lawsuits and that the office should work more collaboratively with other officials to solve the city’s most pressing problems. “It’s a law job, not a policy job,” Trutanich retorts.
Former Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley helped Trutanich win the office four years ago, but the men had a falling out over Trutanich’s decision to run for D.A. last year after promising not to seek another office until after he had served two terms at City Hall. The heavily favored Trutanich failed to make the runoff and decided to ask voters to give him another term in his current post. He trailed Feuer in the primary, and a recent poll found him down by 11 points.
Cooley is not backing either candidate in this race but gives Trutanich “very high marks” for “a remarkably good job of managing his office” and for making it more respected in the larger legal community.
“The office is no longer a punching bag and a patsy,” Cooley said.