Newton: Harmony at City Hall

Over the last 20 years, there has been a lot of change in the top two offices of Los Angeles government. Mayors and city attorneys have been Republicans and Democrats. They've been political insiders and outsiders, and they've been ethnically diverse. Throughout all that, however, one thing has remained constant: No mayor and city attorney have worked well together.

That may soon change. For the first time in a generation, Los Angeles' mayor, Eric Garcetti, and its city attorney, Mike Feuer, are approaching their jobs with mutual regard and what appears to be a real commitment to cooperate. Last week, the two of them, joined by Controller Ron Galperin, met over lunch at Brent's Deli in Northridge, and Feuer was enthusiastic afterward.

"This is kind of a unique moment in Los Angeles," Feuer said from his new office, which was still being assembled the day we spoke. There were no pictures on the walls, not even books on most of the shelves. "The leadership in the city isn't just new. The leadership in the city has the potential to work very deeply and collaboratively together…. That hasn't been the case in the city for years."

Already, Feuer has made a point of appearing personally at the reelection of Council President Herb Wesson, and he has pledged to work with Chief Charlie Beck to improve risk management at the Los Angeles Police Department. In one week, the new city leadership has signaled a new kind of cooperation across branches.

Feuer and Garcetti share more than politics. Both are earnest, well-educated, civic-minded wonks. They have a tendency to lecture and a faith in metrics. Both welcome, or at least say they welcome, being held to measurable results. Garcetti has the slightly thicker skin, Feuer the slightly broader experience, but they are both thorough believers in the potential of government to improve the lives of the governed. They listen well — a contrast to both of their predecessors — and they assume their offices with a strong determination to make change. And, yes, they both can be a bit sanctimonious.

In the case of Feuer, the contrast between his transition and that of Carmen Trutanich, the incumbent whom Feuer defeated in May, could scarcely be more glaring. Four years ago, Trutanich became city attorney after defeating a friend of Villaraigosa's, then-Councilman Jack Weiss. The relationship between the mayor and his maverick city attorney got off on shaky footing and only got worse. By the end of Trutanich's four years, Villaraigosa had dramatically reduced funding for the city attorney's office, and trust between the city's elected leadership and its legal staff had withered to the point that both the mayor and council were seeking outside legal advice.

Trutanich was loud, and council members and the mayor resented his spotlight-hogging, which he seemed to prefer to the quieter work of counseling.

That is not Feuer. "A good lawyer should be counseling to avoid those moments," he said. "You want a city attorney who stands up when people are wronged. That, to me, is the model of a city attorney I want to be. That is not the same thing as a city attorney who looks for moments to say no in a publicly conspicuous way."

As Feuer ticks off his ambitions for his office, they again closely track those that Garcetti often discussed during his mayoral campaign. Making neighborhoods safer and cleaner, protecting vulnerable people, pursuing environmental justice — Feuer describes solutions in legal terms, whereas Garcetti offers a vision drawn more from community organizing and constituent service, but they arrive at similar places. It's hard to imagine them not finding common ground.

That said, there is some risk to all this getting along. The city attorney is not just the government's lawyer but also the people's, and there are times when representing the people means saying no to city clients, an unusual position for most lawyers. Whatever else one thinks of him, Trutanich clearly grasped that aspect of the job; Feuer may have a harder time with it. He's more comfortable giving and taking advice, where Trutanich specialized in pounding.

Feuer recognizes that some might like to see a more publicly combative city attorney and will wonder whether he's really pushing back against bad policy and legal decisions when he takes those stands in private. He insists he'll opt for that approach anyway, that his role as a lawyer compels it: "I need to be really rigidly focused on getting the job done."

For the first time in a generation, a mayor of Los Angeles has a city attorney determined to be a partner. Let's see if they can make it work.

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

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