HUNTINGTON BEACH -- A review of City Atty. Gail Hutton's office noted
"significant improvements" in recent years, but it also showed the office
is plagued with some of the same problems it had during a 1985 audit.
The report -- released last week as part of a seven-month management
audit -- offered 33 recommendations to improve operations. Those
suggestions include hiring an experienced litigator as deputy city
attorney, implementing office procedures and training programs to improve
customer service, and requiring a supervising attorney to be in the
office at all times.
The 87-page document, compiled by Ohio-based Management Partners Inc.,
also pointed out that during the last three years, the city has paid out
less in lawsuit settlements and judgments than five other cities with
The City Council authorized the audit in June 1999, after some officials said they had received complaints that the office was not
responding quickly to requests for legal advice.
Councilman Ralph Bauer said he looked forward to the results.
"I thought we'd take a look at it and maybe that would help that
department," said Bauer, adding that the results were positive and the
suggestions offered were "appropriate."
The report contains a breakdown of observations -- both positive and
negative -- taken from 14 city staffers who participated in two focus
groups. The positives, which included comments such as "code enforcement
is very good," are listed on one page, while the criticisms, similar to
ones addressed in a 1985 audit, are listed over six pages.
Criticisms noted in the recent audit include:
* The staff is not accessible and are often out of the office;
* There is a lack of a management system for attorneys;
* There is no accountability;
* Documents or files are lost or misplaced;
* There is a lack of response on political or touchy issues;
* The city attorney's office doesn't comply with its own rules or the
Findings from the 1985 audit, for which 60 staffers were interviewed,
showed the following:
* Most people rated the city attorney's performance as poor because of
a lack of communication;
* There were inordinate time delays in getting legal opinions;
* The city attorney's office was perceived as unapproachable and
* There was a serious perceived problem of getting a response from the
city attorney's office in a timely manner;
* There were a number of instances of lost or misplaced documents;
* There was a lack of adequate supervision for the city attorney's
Hutton -- who has been the city attorney since 1978 -- did not return
phone calls seeking comment.
Councilman Peter Green didn't find the listing of criticisms unusual.
"That's what you expect from any audit -- to point out strengths and
weaknesses and make recommendations," Green said. "There was an audit
done earlier, and she's made some necessary changes as a result of the
City Hall records show Hutton may have put up a fuss when it came time
to make the 1985 audit available to the public.
"The city attorney advised [the city administrator] that the council
could retain outside counsel to obtain an opinion as to whether the study
was a public record," according to minutes from an Oct. 27, 1986, council
Instead, the council voted to make the audit available to the public.
But the city clerk's office said it never received a copy of the 62-page