Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer is soon to be elected to a second term. That's a statement we can make with confidence because he is running without opposition. So why bother with an endorsement? Feuer is in, and not for merely another four years. Because of a voter-approved change in city election schedules, he (and everyone else elected or reelected in the March 7 race or the May 16 runoff) will have a one-time, extra-long 5½-year term.
But we're going to endorse him anyway, and with enthusiasm, because he has been good for Los Angeles and has set a standard that future city attorneys should strive to meet. He has done what several of his predecessors set out to do or claimed, inaccurately, to have achieved: He has made the L.A. city attorney's office one of the city's top-flight law firms — a destination not merely for career City Hall lawyers, but for sharp young law school graduates and seasoned lawyers in the private sector. That has helped him use the office to curb improper housing practices, combat crimes that until recent years were assigned by law to the district attorney, protect consumers from abusive practices (as in his action against Wells Fargo), and take national leadership in the fight against gun violence.
Feuer has succeeded not merely because he is a good lawyer but because he is a good politician, and yes, there is such a thing. Among his predecessors, Carmen Trutanich blundered by treating his City Hall clients, such as the mayor and City Council, as potential adversaries or wrongdoers, and Rocky Delgadillo too obviously treated his post as a launching pad for advancement. Feuer by contrast has struck a constructive relationship with his elected counterparts without being unduly deferential. He has managed to use his office to fill some of the gaps they have left, yet without stepping on their toes.
For example, city policies and an absence of leadership have resulted in a loss of affordable housing as well as in development that is inconsistent with legally required community plans. City Council members are his clients and Feuer can hardly sue them for inaction. But he has, for example, sued owners of rent-controlled properties for evicting their tenants and converting their units to short-term Airbnb rentals.
He has also stepped in to help correct the city's inadequate programs for limiting its liability in lawsuits, and the money the city has to pay out annually because of broken sidewalks, falling tree limbs, police uses of force and even discrimination against employees.
Officially, Feuer's role is to advise the City Council on the likelihood of success or failure at trial and to help negotiate a settlement if the council so directs him. He must balance that against the need to do the right thing for people who have been wrongfully injured by city action. But he has no ability to direct changes in the policies or procedures of those departments that are actually costing so much money — they are, after all, his clients, not his underlings. Feuer can't direct that payouts for pothole damage come from the Street Services Bureau's budget, for example, to give that office a financial incentive to prevent the need for future payouts.
Working with council members, though, and a bit outside the traditional limits of his jurisdiction, Feuer has begun crafting a risk management program, with corrective action plans from the responsible departments and follow-up evaluation: Did the corrective action work? How much money was saved? It's an example of how to handle the somewhat odd job of city attorney, which carries little authority but presents many opportunities for taking responsibility.
"I'll be damned if I'm ever going to say, 'It's not my job,'" Feuer told the Times editorial board. We like that attitude. All L.A. residents should.
It is undeniable that crime in Los Angeles has crept up on Feuer's watch, and that remains his biggest challenge in the coming term. He has been handed responsibility for many drug and property crimes that before Proposition 47 would have gone to the district attorney. It is one of his biggest frustrations that large numbers of suspects simply don't show up for the treatment and alternative sentencing programs that he has set up. Feuer keeps trying new things, and generally outpaces his counterparts in other cities at experimenting with solutions. It's a challenge across California, and we can't find a district attorney or city attorney who is taking the issue on with as much vigor and creativity as Feuer.