September 30, 1981 - From the September, 1991 issue

TPR Interview: City Attorney’s Lesel on CRA’s Legal Advice

As one of the by-products of the new oversight role of the City Council in the aftermath of the John Tuite buyout, the City Attorney’s office in recent months has been taking over the role of legal counsel to the Com­munity Redevelopment Agency, re­placing the private law firm of Kane, Ballmer and Berkman.

This new relationship has created uncertainty in the legal community over the role of the City Attorney’s office, the number of private firms that will perform work (the City Attorney’s Office has proposed 45), the ultimate quality of the legal work, and its supervision. To shed light on this new arrangement prior to its final Council approval this month, The Planning Report interviewed Dov Lesel, the Assistant City Attorney who now serves as counsel to the CRA.

For those who are not familiar with it, could you describe the new rela­tionship between the City Attorney’s office and the CRA? 

The new relationship between the City Attorney’s office and the CRA is really a reflection of the new relation­ship between the City and the CRA. 

We presently provide general le­gal counsel services to the CRA. However, for a time, the majority of the legal work, especially in the areas of transactional real estate and litiga­tion, will continue to be done by out­side firms. We’ve sought to expand the role of outside firms, especially over the next three years, by opening up the CRA’s legal business to the wider legal community, minimizing the role of any one firm.

Over the next couple of years, the City Attorney’s office will increasingly take on the CRA’s legal work directly. By the end of three years, we expect to be doing over three-quarters of the legal work, with the remainder handled by outside firms.

What specific legal services are you currently providing for the CRA?

We have formed a separate division in the City Attorney’s office to do the CRA work. I’m supposed to have three attorneys — I currently have one on board. I sit with their boards and committees. We review policy matters and provide general legal counsel on matters ranging from the Brown Act, affirmative action, competitive bidding and contracts, to matters of interpretation of redevel­opment law. 

We also advise the CAO and CLA on CRA matters and generally over­see some of the CRA’s litigation. 

There were concerns when the new oversight arrangement was in City Council that the City Attorney’s in­volvement would result in processing delays and decreased flexibility for the Agency. Will there be the funding and capacity to process matters quickly?

The funding will be coming from the CRA’s existing legal budget. As a governmental agency, our real costs are much lower than the costs of out­side finns, partly as a result of our salary structure and lower overhead. So the long-range goal is to bring the legal costs down while maintaining the same level of service.

We have no intention of holding up projects or programs. One of the reasons we’re starting out small is to learn the CRA’s business in a way that doesn’t result in processing de­lays. We prefer to take a smaller role now rather than slowing down the process if we don’t fit into their sys­tem or have the expertise.

With 45 firms pre-selected and a $2-$3 million budget for legal services, averaging about $50,000 per firm, who’s getting enough business to answer the phone calls?

We’re rethinking this process and the numbers in light of the concerns raised. The number of firms reflected our focus of several firms in each of the seven categories of work referenced in the RFP. Regarding the dollar amounts per firm, reducing the number of firms will increase the billings. 

However, we have told the firms that getting prequalified does not mean everybody gets the same amount of business — it is not a guarantee of getting any work. In the first year we may be working with only a small percentage of the firms selected. 

We’ve also selected firms with different expertise and placed them in different work categories. By having these firms pre-approved, in the event there’s a crisis down the road we will not have to issue a new RFP. Addi­tionally, over the three-year period, the legal services budget will be greater than the $2-3 million yearly budget you mentioned. 

Within those categories, how would you determine on a given case which firm to use, and who would make that decision? 

Our office would make the deci­sion. The RFP divided the work areas into several categories, consisting of litigation, redevelopment, eminent domain, transactional real estate, and housing, with one or more majority firms and one or more small firms in each category. 

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Within the categories, we would try to rotate the assignments. In a category with several firms, if there isn’t enough business in a given year, we may decide to use fewer finns, with each of them getting more money. We’ll select those firms based upon their size, previous experience, and the complexity of the work. 

Councilman Yaroslavsky has raised some concerns that these determinations could easily become political. Are there some objective criteria that will be used? 

It’s obviously not that kind of situation. We pre-selected a lot of firms in order to be over-inclusive instead of under-inclusive. To some degree, doing that has opened us up to Zev’s charge. The firms selected have shown some expertise in these areas. 

The second question is a good one: if we’re not going to use all of them, how are we going to make the decision? Again, it will depend upon the complexity of the work and the ability of the finn to handle it. 

In what areas should the pre-selected firms anticipate they will be working over the next several months. 

It will really be on a case by case basis. Eminent domain will certainly be one area. A lot may depend on whether the Hollywood Redevelopment case is settled. Also, a lot may depend on the economy, and on developers who come with individual projects. Litigation is another area very dependent on outside factors. So as a practical matter, we simply don’t know yet. 

And who holds the City Attorney’s office accountable? If the CRA Board doesn’t like the attorney representing the Agency, will it be changed automatically?

It may not happen automatically, just as if one of the City departments doesn’t like the attorney representing it, it doesn’t change automatically. We will consider the reasons and re­spond accordingly. 

As long as the City Council and the CRA want us to be their attorney, we will be their attorney. And the City Attorney is accountable, to the voters.

Have you looked at how other cities handle the relationship between the Redevelopment agency and the City Attorney? 

We’ve found that the situation we had in Los Angeles previously was unusual. In most California cities, the City Attorney is the general counsel for the Redevelopment Agency. When they need to do specialized work, they occasionally hire outside firms. I should add that in most Cali­fornia cities the City Council is the redevelopment agency’s board — there are only a handful of cities that have a separate board as we do. 

If you need to improve or tinker with this relationship over the next six months, who do you represent, the City or the CRA? 

I see a unity of interests between the City and the CRA. It’s wrong to view them as completely separate en­tities — that’s been a problem of the past. 

The CRA, with its independent board, is functioning as a semi-inde­pendent arm of the city, in the same way that your right arm does not act independently from the rest of the city. Our role is to assure that the CRA’s actions are in the best interests of the City, as well as in the CRA’s best interests. I don’t believe the two are in conflict.

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