The city attorney of Los Angeles faces challenges that are complex and stubborn; the person who holds the office thus needs to bring creativity and sound judgment to it. He must provide forceful legal representation for the city. Misdemeanors need to be prosecuted in the context of making communities safer, not merely racking up convictions. City agencies need intelligent advice to guide their efforts and protect taxpayers from liability. The various candidates for the office this year each have the capacity to do part of the job well, but only one has the potential to do it all: The Times endorses former Assemblyman Mike Feuer for city attorney.
Feuer's opponents in this campaign include the incumbent, City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, whom we endorsed for the job four years ago in his race against City Councilman Jack Weiss. In some respects, Trutanich has lived up to the hopes of those who supported him then. He's been an independent voice in a City Hall with too few. And he's doggedly fought to toughen the city's reputation in court, resisting the temptation to settle lawsuits too quickly and thereby encourage plaintiffs' lawyers to take advantage of the city.
And yet he has been a disappointment too. Trutanich once championed the neighborhood prosecutor program, only to preside over drastic reductions to it after taking office. (Admittedly, he had to make budget cuts, but in that case, he made the wrong choice.) He's pursued headline-grabbing cases — vowing to eliminate ticket scalping, for instance, and battling with the owners of Staples Center over the cost of the Michael Jackson funeral — that are marginal to the lives of most of those he represents. He's been a halfhearted advocate of openness in city business — the city today provides far less public access to police records and disciplinary hearings than just a few years ago — and he has struggled to guide the government toward a coherent policy on billboards and marijuana clinics. His representation of city agencies and officials has disappointed many of his clients, who complain about the quality of his advice and his slowness to act. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, with whom Trutanich should have forged a close working relationship, is backing Feuer.
Not all of that is Trutanich's fault. Budget cutbacks have hurt many agencies, and lawyers are not always to blame for the actions of their clients — it's not the city attorney's fault if police officers, say, beat a suspect and the city is forced to pay. Still, his record includes little proof that his counsel has benefited the city, while there is ample evidence that his showboating has elevated his personal profile.
Trutanich's histrionics are sometimes crowd-pleasers, but they aren't the marks of a sober, seasoned counselor. Indeed, voters appear to have lost some faith in him as well. When Trutanich broke his word that he would not seek the office of district attorney and ran last year, he was soundly beaten, losing not just in the parts of the county that he did not already represent but inside the city as well.
Feuer, on the other hand, is an experienced, thoughtful and well-rounded public official and lawyer, one whose background has prepared him for this post. He has served on the City Council, where he tightened gun laws and improved constituent services; he helped bring about the city's 311 service, for instance. And in the Assembly, he chaired the Judiciary Committee and wrote a number of important bills in areas such as consumer protection, public safety and environmental protection. Moreover, Feuer proved himself a capable broker, helping negotiate deals on environmental and other issues. He has extensive experience in public interest law — before entering elected life, Feuer ran Bet Tzedek Legal Services, one of the nation's most highly regarded providers of legal services to the poor. He has shown both the creativity and the ability to serve as an exemplary city attorney.
That's especially important this year because Los Angeles faces a rough period ahead. Its finances are a shambles and will not be fixed by small adjustments here and there. The new leadership — the city is about to get a new mayor, a new controller and a raft of new council members — will need to explore every possible opportunity for containing costs and responsibly increasing revenue without deepening the city's difficulties in attracting new business. Many of those solutions will require political will, a cooperative attitude among top officials and legal acumen as the city examines novel solutions that require legal analysis. Feuer's background as a legislator and lawyer ideally prepare him for that task.
There are two other candidates in the race, but neither has the breadth or depth of experience to warrant the position. Greg Smith is a successful private lawyer who has made a small fortune suing Los Angeles and other municipalities that mistreat their employees. He would, no doubt, be an effective advocate for the government were he to be elected and find himself on the other side of lawsuits such as those he's brought. But that's just one aspect of the job. He offers no thoughtful argument for himself as a prosecutor or as a counselor to the government.
Noel Weiss, meanwhile, is a conscientious candidate who offers some intelligent criticism of the current government, which he considers removed from the people it serves. Some of his ideas, however, seem more like slogans than deeply considered responses to the city's difficulties. He proclaims, for instance, that City Hall is guilty of "too much love of power … and not enough power of love." He may be right, but he's raised no campaign money and has done little to expand the important debate over the office he seeks. The city needs more in its top lawyer.