LA City Attorneys Association Candidate Forum

In Campaign Events, Videos on January 22, 2009 at 2:56 pm
(Image courtesy of Joe Grantz under Creative Commons License)

(Image courtesy of Joe Grantz under Creative Commons License)

On Tuesday, the L.A. City Attorneys Association held a candidate forum. The group was very gracious to invite me to participate, and I really enjoyed discussing my views regarding the the Office of the City Attorney.  Prior to the candidates form, participants were asked to provide answers to 5 questions in advance. My answers are posted below.

The link to the video can be found here.

1. What are the major initiatives that you want to implement once elected to our office?

I want to redefine the office. The model which has most impressed me is that of the Oakland City Attorney. My core beliefs are (a) in the power of ideas, (b) in the power of the people, and (c) that the goal should at all times be to get the right result, for the right reason, in the right way. I believe in bottom-up governance, not top-down; and I believe in taking steps to ensure that the people have a seat at the table along side the special interests. I don’t believe the City Attorney’s office should ever run political interference for any council member. The City Attorney is independently elected Citywide and has a legitimate political consensus of his or her own which is just as legitimate as that of any Council member. The City Attorney’s office should be the focus for new and exciting ideas and approaches so that the system can better work for the people. I believe we are entering into a new political era – one of ‘practical, progressive politics’. Accordingly, my overriding governance philosophy will be to filter any new program, idea, or approach through the following criteria:

Programs and policies must be (1) Practical, (2) Pro-active, (3) Positive, (4) Progressive, and (5) Principled.

Specifically, some of the ideas and approaches I would take would be the following: 1. I would publish my schedule on a bi-monthly basis; 2. I would immediately undertake a communications outreach effort to the attorneys and the staff to identify key sources of discontent, difficulty, and challenge which might have developed and ask everyone in the office to comment on past practices – what went right, what went wrong, and why.

Then, develop consensus on a solution, make changes, explain the changes, monitor the changes against the stated objectives; 3. I would attempt to develop consensus around core principles (a vision) which would guide my own conduct and those of everyone in the office; 4. I want every City Attorney opinion written in the last 20 years on land use matters to be catalogued and made available for everyone in the office for easy access (and eventually the public); 5. I want to figure out a way to work more closely with the District Attorney and the City Attorneys of adjacent cities where a DA Taskforce can be formed to prosecute significant major misdemeanor crimes committed involving cross-jurisdictions (so the bad guys don’t ‘walk between the raindrops’ – plus there is a lot of positive synergy that can come from building bridges with other cities under the DA’s auspices rather than just having more ‘stovepipes’); 6. I would welcome performance audits by the Controller as a way to develop insight, knowledge, and the kind of public dialogue which should accompany the operation of a public office (it would also be a positive precedent for performance audits of other public officials which might have to be undertaken in special situations (one which comes to mind is the Mayor’s operation of Charter Public Schools – I believe this has to be examined both substantively and practically because my view is that the Mayor has no power under the Charter to do what he is doing (no matter how wonderful or beneficent the motive). It sets a bad precedent and it institutionalizes a failure on the part of the City Council to do its job in directing the City’s affairs, setting policy, and itself providing oversight of the Mayor’s operation of his office (pretense is not a substitute for policy decision-making); 7. I would revamp the City Attorney’s website to make it more user friendly, thorough, and complete (modeled again after the Oakland City Attorney); 8. I would publish a yearly summary of the Office’s operations which will clearly delineate the City Attorney’s budget, how the money is spent, litigation expenses, operating costs, and lawsuit payouts.

On a broader level, I would do two major things relative to the City Attorney’s relationship with the City Council:

1. I would assign a Deputy City Attorney to each Council office (15 Deputy City Attorneys). This would be a prestige position within the office. These individuals would either have an office in the Councilmember’s office (to facilitate a closer working relationship (under the theory that ‘access’ equals power’), or in the City Attorney’s office. This person would act as the Councilmember’s counsel on all legal matters attendant to policy decisions and the Councilmember’s operation of his or her office (and again we are speaking of the interplay of both practical and political considerations (since they inevitably intertwine). This would be a very challenging position, but an exciting one. So, for example, when Greg Smith introduces a series of business-friendly motions before counsel as he has just done, the objective would be to provide legal input at the front end – to facilitate a draft motion which is simple and direct and the objective legally achievable. I would want the Deputy City Attorney to be very, very pro-active in this role – peppering the Councilmember with comments, concerns, criticisms, praise, objective ideas, imaginative ideas (as would any attorney engaged in private practice advising a client). The Councilmember can accept or reject the advice – But the Councilmember can’t fire the City Attorney. I see the possibilities here of us being able to aid the Council in doing a better job for the public. The City Attorney’s office has, for example, a mediation component. The office can aid and assist in mediating problems within the community, particularly as they relate to land use issues or some of the nuisance issues. Again, the focus is to get problems solved (a pro-active approach), after having them identified.

This would track nicely with my approach of my presiding over weekly ‘task force’ meetings with the community in each Council district where specific problems are identified and the means and mechanisms of getting them confronted and resolved are put into place. My model for this is Janice Hahn’s Watts Gang Task Force – where Janice herself meets with the community weekly for 2 hours (every Monday). I have been a member of this task force for 2 ½ years and it has proven to be an effective beginning for empowering the people and channeling the community’s desires and hopes into meaningful community action.

Again, I’m looking for a positive synergy to take hold.

There is no reason why the City Attorney cannot publicly advocate for one or more specific legislative changes. This is not something I have seen much of during the last eight years.

Under my administration, the office of City Attorney would assert its professional and political independence from the City Council. The office would no longer act as ‘cover’ for political decisions of councilmembers. Instead, I will challenge Councilmembers to do their jobs – which is to reconcile the conflicting economic, political, and legal interests, and debate and decide policy. Fewer ‘games’ will be played – there will be less deflection – fewer detours away from the intersection where principle meets reality.

2. A second major change would be to permanently assign 3-4 Deputy City Attorneys to serve the Neighborhood Councils exclusively. All problems, procedural or substantive, would be handled by these individuals. I would advocate for the Planning Department to permanently assign 3-4 Planners to work exclusively to advise the Neighborhood Councils. (Both could be paid for by allocating $10,000 ($5,000 for the City Attorney and $5,000 for the Planning Department) from the $50,000 received by each of the 90 Neighborhood Councils.) Written opinions on substantive and procedural issues would be available on the City Attorney’s website for access by all Neighborhood Councils. The potential exists for routine issues that arise to be resolved more easily since many of the same procedural problems occur among the various Neighborhood Councils. The result: The Neighborhood Councils can be made to perform better – overcoming procedural hurdles and thus be free to tackle the more substantive matters.

Generally, there is a lot of needless complexity in our laws. I think the public would be better served with simplicity. Where possible, simplicity should be the goal. I think challenging the imaginative component of our personalities will yield very positive results for the attorneys in the office, the staff which supports the attorneys, and the public. I believe that confusion in the public’s mind can be replaced by confidence. This will lead to a positive cycle where people’s faith in government is enhanced and the self-esteem of the attorneys and the staff in the office mirrors that same degree of enhancement.

On land use issues, I want to develop a public dialogue with counsel on both sides of these land use questions. Litigation should be the last result, not the first. I would like to see many of these land use matters mediated with open public discussion of various legal points – identifying the soft spots legally and practically. Imagine a public dialogue between Doug Carstens or Robert Silverstein vs. Ben Resnick. It would make us all better if these land use issues were more thoroughly and thoughtfully debated in advance. In most cases, this is not rocket science. The arguments are well known. In the end, where there is disagreement, the scope of the disagreement can be identified. That would make the litigation where it occurred more focused. I would enter the office with the belief that every attorney and staff member wants to do the best possible job possible, but that those efforts are being impaired by an approach to lawyering which is reactive, instead of proactive.

Those who favor the status quo should not vote for me. I believe in the principle of individual empowerment. That applies not just to the public, but to those who serve the public. I also believe that all the laws should be enforced, not just the criminal misdemeanor laws. Without going into extended detail, my ‘marker’ on this is the prime monument to the failure of the City’s governance system: Lincoln Place. The City Attorney stood silent as 62 families were evicted in direct contravention of a ‘no eviction promise’ which was incorporated into land use (tract map) conditions. That promise could and should have been enforced under LAMC 12.27.1 (which empowers the Planning Department to revoke land use entitlements after a hearing if the holder of the entitlements fails to honor or abide by a tract map condition after having been given an opportunity to have cured a violation. LAMC 11.00 also makes the violation of a tract map condition a misdemeanor). The ‘no eviction promise’ made by the speculator was not enforced by the Planning Dept. or the City Attorney. In the end, the speculator abandoned the Lincoln Place tract map anyway. We now confront the specter of 38 acres of nearly vacant apartments in the midst of a housing crisis – All needless; all unnecessary; all unacceptable. The City Attorney, Mr. Delgadillo, failed the public in this instance. Two Court of Appeal decisions have validated my point that Mr. Delgadillo exercised poor judgment in this instance.

A related lapse was the failure of the City Attorney to advise the Planning Department and the Council in connection with the SB 1818 implementation legislation with regard to the need to establish the specific protocol needed to ensure (a) that AB 283 was enforced, and (b) that the protocol to be adopted by Planning provided (i) that the Planning Dept. was equipped to make the findings needed to support a determination that a given project would have specific, quantifiable adverse environmental impacts (where appropriate), and (ii) that the concession sought was needed in order to make the SB 1818 project pencil out. To this day, I don’t believe such procedures have been put in place. This is wrong.

These are just two specific examples of how the office would be run differently were I to be elected.

2. What, if any, divisions or units would you eliminate, and what, if any, new programs would you want to create?
(Background: The current administration expanded the budget considerably by hiring more personal staff, special assistants, and outside counsel, while also creating several new units, such as the Neighborhood Prosecutor Program. With the reality of dwindling government revenues and an anemic City budget, it seems that public officials will have to be more frugal with their operating expenses. This question addresses the issue in regards to specific programs, but you can also comment on the general issue of resource management.)

I believe my detailed response to Question No. 1 covered this in significant part. I don’t have a list of divisions or units that would be eliminated at this time. The expenses for a Deputy City Attorney in each Council office can come from the budget of each office. The expense of a dedicated Deputy City Attorney for Neighborhood Councils can come from the $50,000 allocated to each Neighborhood Council. My initial view is $5,000 x 90 or $450,000 – which can pay for 3-4 Deputy City Attorneys and staff to serve the Neighborhood Councils.

3. What is your attitude toward public service, and what would you do to promote transparency and fairness in promoting attorneys within the office? (Background: In the past, most new hires came straight out of law school and started their careers as Criminal deputies. After spending a year or two doing trials, they were encouraged to move around the office and gain experience in a variety of other departments, both Criminal and Civil. This was designed to mold a more “well-rounded” attorney who would take the culmination of his/her experience to wherever he/she decided to specialize. There has been a growing sentiment that the last administration has not valued the career development of its employees, indicating that the term “government attorney’ was a bad word. This has been evidenced by: an inability to transfer to other areas of the office -most notably from Criminal to Civil; multiple outside hires – many times at the expense of more experienced, senior in-house attorneys; and, a secretive, non-reviewable process regarding transfers and promotions. This question is aimed at understanding your commitment to cultivating healthy career development within the office and nurturing a professional relationship with your employees.)

I would listen to the concerns of the attorneys in the office. I believe in the idea of mentoring. I would like to get a better sense of why there have been problems in this area. As in all other areas, my approach here would be one which is practical, proactive, positive, progressive, and principled. In a lot of ways the staff and the attorneys are trapped. My goal would be to empower them, excite them, challenge them to be the best they can be, and produce results for the people.

4. How do you view the morale in the office, and what do you plan to do to improve it?
(Background: As indicated above, the prevailing sentiment is that the last administration took an antagonistic position towards its employees, resulting in several difficult problems that linger today. Such examples include: (a) many employees that have reached the DCA III pay grade are unable to advance to the DCA IV level and are languishing at this “3-wall” because management has hired so many attorneys from the outside; (b) many cases and legal issues that were normally handled in-house have been farmed out to private firms, again denying employees more professional development; and (c) the present management never bothered to get to know the attorneys in the office, creating an inner-office on the 8th floor with limited security access that further alienated the rank and file. This question is designed to understand how you will foster an atmosphere of inclusiveness and improved morale for the office as a whole.)

By listening to the attorneys and the staff – providing effective means and modes of ongoing communication; by opening myself up to criticism; by promoting an open dialogue; by giving people a sense of empowerment by showing respect for their views, trying to reach consensus wherever possible, and explaining the reason and rational for all decisions. Again, more respect has to be shown for the family needs of the attorneys and staff. Things like flex-time; needed time off for special, important, or emergency family needs has to be looked at; other ways to get the job done have to be examined; can there be more efficiencies generated, for example. Are the attorneys getting the tools they need to deliver the quality legal serves the citizens need? I also think that if the City Council is made to do its job and make policy, then there will be a better sense of accomplishment on the part of the City Attorney’s office. It can be very discouraging to have to protect the political back-sides of City Council-members whose political legitimacy is no less than that of the elected City Attorney.

Finally, I think the morale of the office can be improved by getting positive results for the people and by experiencing the positive feeling which comes from having a satisfied ‘client’ – one who expresses clear gratitude for the services rendered. Just getting the City Council to do its job in deciding on the City’s policy offer the attorneys in the office a great sense of satisfaction. It is always easier and more satisfying when there is a clear, competent, and viable policy structure in place so people know and understand what they are doing, and why.

5. Why do you think you are the best candidate for City Attorney?

I don’t think it’s a matter of being the ‘best’ candidate, but the ‘best qualified’ candidate. Both are subjective terms. I would rather speak to my own qualifications which are as follows: (1) I have a vision for the office – I don’t want to massage and placate the status quo – I want to move beyond the status quo into the next realm which is to transform the office into a problem solving tool that works for the people and reaffirms their faith in the viability of the social contract between government and the people; (2) I have demonstrated the ability to understand politics and our system by getting concrete results out of the City Council that few thought possible (the tenant relocation fee raise being just one example); (3) I possess the experience to fairly lead and administer the office based on my having maintained an active civil litigation practice for 27 years (between 1976 and 2003); (4) I remain open to new ideas and new approaches.

My definition of a great leader (a skillful leader) is a person who can maintain a healthy balance between one’s ‘ego’ and ‘imagination’. Admittedly, this is a moving target, but as I encourage myself, I would also encourage others to try to be sensitive to this objective.

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  1. Hi, Noel – I was impressed with your style and presentation vs. Measure B at the Woodland Hills-Warner Center Neighborhood Council. Could you email me? Depending on your answer to a question, I would love to have you speak at an organization I am president of. Nancy E

  2. Nancy:

    I am happy to discuss this with you at your convenience.

    I will contact you immediately and hope to hear back from you.

    Noel.

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