UPDATE: Sending Trutanich to His Corner | News | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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UPDATE: Sending Trutanich to His Corner 

In layoff roulette, mayor aims at city attorney but City Council won't pull trigger

Thursday, Feb 11 2010
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Carmen Trutanich, L.A.'s bulky and bullheaded city attorney, has been in office for seven months, and has wasted little of that time making friends.

Trutanich has declared war on billboards, feuded with the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns Staples Center, and taken aim at the lesser capitalists who run the city's marijuana shops. He has threatened to prosecute a city-department head and, according to some accounts, to have Councilwoman Jan Perry thrown in jail. He ran for office as an outsider — with most of City Hall backing his opponent Jack Weiss — and has governed like one.

Payback came January 29.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY KYLE T. WEBSTER
  • ILLUSTRATION BY KYLE T. WEBSTER

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The city administrative officer's plan to lay off 1,000 of the city's 40,000 employees has targeted Trutanich's office. One hundred of the job cuts would come from his staff.

Trutanich sees this as a disproportionate hit, especially considering that no layoffs were proposed for the offices of the city's other elected officials.

"One elected official has been targeted for cuts," says Bill Carter, Trutanich's chief deputy. "We should not be treated any differently from the mayor and the council and the controller."

Trutanich's office has 900 employees, about half of whom are lawyers. In addition to offering advice to other departments and defending the city from lawsuits, the office prosecutes about 150,000 misdemeanors a year, including cases of domestic violence, elder abuse and child molestation.

A City Hall observer, who asked for anonymity to speak frankly, told the Weekly that Trutanich's office has been targeted by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose staff of 200 escaped the layoff list entirely. "They want to make him look bad, and take away his tools," the observer said.

Councilman Paul Koretz notes that Trutanich "has driven the council a little crazy in the last six months," but argues that the layoff list shouldn't be based on "a popularity contest." After city administrative officer Miguel Santana said that no one had urged him to slash Trutanich's budget, Koretz says that fact is beside the point. He says he doubts anyone on the council asked for cuts. "But I think the thinking is, 'Here's an office where there won't be much support to fight those layoffs.'"

The latest budget drama has carried a greater-than-usual sense that people do not mean what they say.

On one hand, budget hawks are warning of a city crisis that could end in bankruptcy. On the other, the council has balked at laying off the city's calligraphers, who design the ceremonial proclamations that go to council friends and supporters. (Councilman Bill Rosendahl has taken the most heat for this, but even the hawkish Councilman Bernard Parks has defended the expense. "The one thing you get total appreciation for is people getting honored," Parks says.)

That sense of denial has extended to the mayor's layoff figures. On January 20, Villaraigosa and five council members sent a letter to Santana directing him to come up with the plan for 1,000 layoffs. Since then, one of the deeper mysteries at City Hall has been where that figure came from. Even Councilman Dennis Zine, who signed the letter, told the L.A. Times that he didn't know.

Koretz says the number was "plucked out of the air."

But within the city attorney's office, the layoff number has taken on a visceral reality. Attorneys in that office are keenly aware of their rank on the seniority list, and those in the bottom 100 have begun to worry.

"Where are there jobs for lawyers in this economy?" asks Juliann Anderson, a board member of the Los Angeles City Attorneys Association. "All the firms have laid off. My Plan B is to put up my own shingle and get a secondary job."

Nerves were frayed as the attorneys association met on February 3. Its members belong to the Coalition of L.A. City Unions, which represents 22,000 of the city's 28,000 employees who aren't sworn officers. The coalition cut a deal with Villaraigosa and the City Council preventing layoffs until July, in exchange for $78 million in concessions, including deferred raises and increased retirement contributions from employees.

But come July 1, "people are afraid they're going to lose their jobs, their families, their homes," says Oscar Winslow, president of the attorneys association.

Even as the attorneys were meeting, the council was backing off the entire layoff issue. In a motion crafted by City Council President Eric Garcetti, the council voted to hold off on approving any layoffs for 30 days while moving to transfer employees to the city's proprietary departments — the port, the airport and the Department of Water and Power — where their salaries would not factor into the teetering general fund.

Frustrated with the council's inaction, Villaraigosa called a press conference on February 4 to announce that he would direct his general managers to expedite the layoffs of 1,000 employees, without the City Council's involvement.

This announcement was met with skepticism, given that most civilian workers are immune from layoffs until July 1. Even then, if the city were to lay off Coalition employees, it would have to give back the employee concessions negotiated last fall.

Layoff threats have been made before, only to melt away in the heat of labor negotiations. Villaraigosa labored to make the case that this time is different. The city is likely to nearly exhaust its reserve fund by July, and Santana fears that without layoffs, the city's credit rating will be downgraded, which would make it more costly to get through the next two years by borrowing.

While not denying the severity of the crisis, the Coalition argues that the city has moved slowly in processing the early retirement of 2,400 city employees. Such inefficiency does not inspire confidence that 1,000 layoffs could be handled quickly, in the Coalition's view.

"It's ludicrous," says Victor Gordo, a Coalition lawyer. "If they can't get 2,400 people out the door voluntarily, how are they going to get 1,000 out involuntarily?"

The mayor's press conference was designed to demonstrate resolve in the face of a severe fiscal crisis — to the general public and, just as importantly, to the analysts who sit at municipal credit-rating desks at Fitch and Moody's. But Villaraigosa has also signaled that this is just the opening position in what will be a protracted negotiation.

"We don't have to go there, but I am prepared to go there," he says. "We could avoid layoffs if everybody agreed to take a cut, but there's an unwillingness to act."

Villaraigosa was booed by city employees when he addressed the council on February 9.

"There's a climate of trepidation," he acknowledged. "But it's important for us to face reality here."

As for Trutanich, Matt Szabo, Villaraigosa's deputy chief of staff, argued on February 4 that the city attorney's office was disproportionately targeted for cuts because it employs a larger portion of non-Coalition employees, who are vulnerable to layoffs this year.

Trutanich's office fired back last Friday. Carter issued a memo to employees arguing that the mayor has no authority to lay off anyone in the city attorney's office.

"The City Attorney has no intention of laying off any of our staff unless and until such action is compelled by action of the City Council as an exercise of its power over the City budget," Carter wrote.

Meanwhile, the council still has to close a budget gap far greater than can be fixed with 1,000 layoffs. Some council members, including Janice Hahn and Rosendahl, have suggested putting an array of proposed new taxes before voters.

As for Trutanich, he would do well to befriend council members. Many are sympathetic to his argument that his attorneys generate revenue from fines and collections, and therefore ought not to be let go. But council members will want some proof.

"He's a straight shooter," Rosendahl says of Trutanich. "But if he can't show us how he's going to save us money or make us money, he's going to take cuts like everyone else is."

Contact the writer at gmaddaus@laweekly.com.

Reach the writer at gmaddaus@laweekly.com

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