City attorney gets 33 suggestions for improvement

Theresa Moreau

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

similar budgets.

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

city's rules.

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

support staff.

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

earlier audit."

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


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