What does L.A.’s city attorney do?
On the one hand, you can think of the city attorney as the head of a law firm representing the L.A. city government as its client. The city attorney runs an office of more than 500 lawyers representing L.A. in all legal matters, including filing lawsuits and defending against them. And L.A. is involved in a lot of lawsuits, whether it’s suing the federal government to defend sanctuary city policies, suing businesses for fraud and price gouging schemes, or being sued over fatal police shootings, sexual harassment cases or lack of sidewalk repairs.
The city attorney is also a prosecutor for misdemeanors committed in L.A. — think public nuisances, petty shoplifting, vandalism and the like. (Felonies are handled by the county district attorney, as are any type of crime committed in unincorporated parts of L.A. County.) Even if they’re not in court often themselves, they set policies on how to treat certain types of misdemeanor crimes. This also means the city attorney can choose which cases not to prosecute and which to refer to diversion programs (in which defendants can avoid trial and potential jail time by doing certain programs like drug treatment or therapy) instead.
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When the City Council proposes a law, the city attorney actually writes the law. They also counsel city departments, agencies and officials on legal issues, like how to interpret court rulings or the city charter. How do we select an interim mayor if the sitting mayor leaves office early? In what cases should body cam footage of LAPD arrests be made public? The city attorney gets to advise on these kinds of questions behind the scenes, and their opinion can hold a lot of weight.
Not every city attorney is elected — in many smaller cities, it’s an appointed position. But in L.A., voters elect their city attorney (the position is limited to two four-year terms), who is expected to serve the public interest. L.A.’s city attorney can decide what lawsuits are in the community’s interest to pursue. They can make crucial interpretations of ambiguous laws. They can take a stand when there are policy disagreements with other elected officials. Because the public’s interest doesn’t always align with City Hall’s interests, this can be a tricky dance. That’s the kind of savvy this job requires.
A city attorney can create lasting precedents through the cases they pursue and how they argue them.
In the 1980s, city attorney James Hahn, who later became mayor, pioneered the use of gang injunctions, which are court orders that prohibit gang members from doing things like staying out past a certain hour at night, wearing clothes with gang colors, or assembling in large groups. The idea was that breaking up low-level gang activity could prevent more serious crimes. But these injunctions were often applied so broadly that in many cases, people who were not gang members would get hit with an injunction without having the means to fight it in court. Civil liberties groups have long argued that gang injunctions profile communities of color and overcriminalize youth, but L.A. city attorneys since Hahn have generally supported the practice as a way to reduce gang-related crime. Courts ordered L.A. to restrict its use of gang injunctions in 2020, but they’re still in use.
What’s on the agenda for the next term?
It’s impossible to say anything specific at this stage. So much of this depends on who we elect, what their priorities are, who else is elected for offices like city council or mayor, and what kind of legal conundrums the L.A. city government finds itself in. City attorneys have to react to the cases that land on their desk.
However, the next city attorney will have to contend with the loss of public trust in the office stemming from its scandal with the L.A. Department of Water and Power (LADWP). In that case, a lawyer working for the city attorney’s office secretly represented both sides in a lawsuit over LADWP incorrectly billing customers in 2013. That lawsuit resulted in a $67 million settlement with the city, with $10 million of that money going to at least two attorneys who were involved in orchestrating the cover-up. Investigations are continuing to root out how many others might have known or collaborated in the scheme.
Where do city attorneys go from here?
This is a powerful office that generally leads to other powerful offices. Former city attorney Ira Reiner went on to become L.A. district attorney, while his successor James Hahn became mayor after his term as city attorney was up. Current city attorney Mike Feuer was making his bid for mayor in 2022 as well, but dropped out of the race in May.
If you’re unsure what to consider as you decide who to vote for, here are some qualities that experts say are important for this role.
- Political skill. What if the mayor and city council disagree on a legal matter? What if City Hall clashes with public opinion on a major issue? The city attorney can find themselves caught in the middle of all kinds of conflicts of interest, and they’ll need to be able to plan for and navigate all the different ramifications their actions could have.
- Ability to operate in City Hall. A city attorney has to be part of City Hall’s day-to-day operations and inner machinery, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State LA. “[While] the city attorney can roam and do all kinds of stuff in the community, if that’s all they do, they’re not going to be a very good city attorney.”
- Legal and management experience. The city attorney is essentially the head of a very, very big law firm. Fernando Guerra, professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University, says he would consider a candidate’s “experience as a lawyer representing government entities, experience running large institutions, and experience in conflict resolution.”
A Multitasking City Attorney (LA Times): A 2013 editorial exploring the city attorney’s role in more depth and explaining why it’s difficult to evaluate success
Who we spoke to for this piece:
- Raphael Sonenshein, Executive Director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, Cal State LA
- Fernando Guerra, Professor of Political Science and Chicana/o Studies, Loyola Marymount University
The primary vote for L.A. city attorney primary was crowded, with seven candidates, four of them in a tight race to replace outgoing City Attorney Mike Feuer.
Faisal Gill won the primary with 24.23% of the vote. Hydee Feldstein Soto came in second, with 19.9% of the vote. She received just 136 votes more than the third-place winner, Marina Torres.
L.A. has never had an Asian-American or female city attorney, so regardless of who wins, the outcome will be historic.
Here are basics on Gill and Soto, as well as their stances on specific issues, sourced from their campaign websites, public statements, local news coverage.
Hydee Feldstein Soto
Feldstein Soto has had a long career as an attorney. She was a partner at two major law firms specializing in commercial finance and bankruptcy litigation, and briefly served as general counsel for entertainment company Kin Community. She grew up in Puerto Rico, but has lived in Los Angeles for the past 40 years and has been deeply involved in the Neighborhood Council system.
Feldstein Soto said that she does not see the city attorney’s role as that of a policymaker, meaning that she will abide by local and state law as closely as possible and not use the office’s powers to try to change policy. She also says she is not interested in starting a political career and pledges not to use this role as a stepping stone to higher office.
On criminal justice: Her office would impose consequences on all crimes, regardless of the circumstances or who committed them. “It doesn’t matter that the property stolen was worth $9, $90, or $900. That all falls under a misdemeanor,” she said at the January 6 forum. But she says that doesn’t mean incarceration is always the necessary punishment — diversion programs, community service and job training are also interventions that she says would be appropriate.
Even though the city attorney can choose to decline to prosecute certain cases, Feldstein Soto says she would not do that for any broad category of crimes because that would be a policy move. However, she says she would collect data and refrain from prosecution in cases where enforcing the law has a disparate impact on communities of color. “We ought to scrub our penal code,” she said in a December 2021 interview. “We ought to make sure we only have laws on there that are a) constitutionally enforceable, and b) that we really intend to enforce equally.”
On holding the L.A. Police Department accountable: Feldstein Soto says she expects to work closely with the LAPD, given that as city attorney “you are the lawyer for the department.” She also pointed out that although L.A. needs to deal with police misconduct and excess uses of force, there are several law enforcement agencies that operate within L.A. city (including the California Highway Patrol, Sheriff’s Department, school police and more) and that she “[doesn’t] like tarring our LAPD necessarily with the misconduct of every officer in uniform across the country.”
On homelessness and housing: Homelessness would be her top priority if elected, Feldstein Soto says, and she would focus on how to expedite housing production rather than just litigating homelessness. She says there are four areas the city attorney can get involved in: Finding a more updated financing structure for new housing production, enforcing more competitive bidding procedures, creating a more streamlined process whereby housing development plans can be presented through one office that would reach multiple departments, and finding funds for mental health services apart from the county.
“And at the end of the day, we need to enforce,” she said at a Jan. 6 debate. “We can’t criminalize poverty or homelessness, but neither can we normalize criminal behavior. No one has the right to privatize our public spaces for their own use.”
Feldstein Soto also doesn’t support upzoning — changing zoning codes to allow for more housing to be built in a given area — as a solution to housing affordability. “I view it as irresponsible to toss the issue of affordable housing, and a safety net to create workforce housing, into the hands of private developers,” she said.
- Read more about Hydee Feldstein Soto on Voter's Edge
- Rise Together Candidate Interview Series: Hydee Feldstein Soto for Los Angeles City Attorney
Faisal M. Gill
Civil Rights Attorney
Gill is a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer who’s made homelessness and LAPD accountability the centerpieces of his campaign. He previously worked as a senior policy adviser at the Department of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration. He’s made two unsuccessful runs for office before: in 2007, he ran as a Republican for the Virginia House of Delegates, and ran as a Democrat in 2016 for the Vermont State Senate. He also briefly served as chair of the Vermont Democratic Party.
Gill has said he views the city attorney as a policy office, with the power to make decisions like whether to prosecute protesters or get rid of cash bail in the misdemeanor system.
On criminal justice: Gill says the misdemeanor system is broken and disproportionately targets communities of color. He pledges to significantly reduce prosecutions of crimes that he says do not affect public safety, including loitering, public drunkenness and trespassing. For other crimes, he says he wants to focus on a restorative justice model and pre-plea diversion programs. However, he said at the March 30 forum he does not want to “misuse diversion programs” and apply them to cases where charges should be dropped, since those programs cost money.
On holding the L.A. Police Department accountable: Gill said at the April 20 forum that he would strike a “fair but balanced” relationship with LAPD, and would hold officers accountable if they commit misconduct but defend those who are wrongfully accused of violations. He says the current city attorney’s office has too often acted as a “rubber stamp” for LAPD, which leads to lawsuits and costly legal settlements. He also highlights a case where he fought the L.A. city attorney’s office in court to have LAPD release body camera footage of the arrest of a Black music producer who says he was racially profiled.
On homelessness and housing: Gill said he “would not prosecute somebody simply for being houseless.” He says laws like 41.18, the controversial ordinance better known as the anti-camping law that prohibits people from camping near schools, daycares, parks and other public spaces, is “immoral.” He would not prosecute unhoused people under 41.18 or for other crimes related to not having a place to live, such as vandalism, trespassing or failing to appear in court. That would, in turn, pressure the mayor and city council to come up with alternative solutions to homelessness than criminalization, he says.
Gill also pledges to enforce SB 9 and SB 10, state laws that allow for more housing density in California cities. Additionally, he says he would strengthen enforcement of L.A.’s Home Sharing Ordinance, which sets regulations for short-term rentals like Airbnb, saying that the proliferation of short-term rentals in L.A. has exacerbated the housing crisis.
- Read more about Faisal Gill's priorities and experience in Voter's Edge
- City Attorney Candidate Faisal Gill Has New Approach for L.A.’s Homeless (LA Magazine)
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