November 1, 2001 - From the November, 2001 issue

With A New Division, L.A.'s City Attorney Prioritizes Real Estate

L.A. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo started his tenure by making monumental changes to the way that office does business. To talk about those changes and their link to land use and development, TPR was pleased to speak with Special Assistant City Attorney Cecilia Estolano, the head of the newly reorganized Real Estate and Economic Development Division. Estolano offers an insider's glimpse into the new division, the reorganization and how the new office is now able to find proactive and creative ways to encourage development within the City.

Cecilia, you've been brought from private practice into the L.A. City Attorney's Office by Rocky Delgadillo. Could you address what new responsibilities he's assigned you, as well as how the City Attorney's office is being reorganized under his leadership?

I've been hired to head a new "Super Division" charged with streamlining the approval process and giving our clients-be they the City, the Community Development Department, the Housing Department, the CRA or developers in the private sector-the best advice and attorneys available. To effectively attain that mission we've blended the former land use, real property, environment, housing, community services, redevelopment and portions of the financial services divisions into this new Real Estate and Economic Development Division.

What are the goals for this new Real Estate and Economic Development Super Division?

The new Division has two main goals.

First, the L.A. City Attorney's Office must have attorneys work collectively and communicate across division lines rather than get trapped doing only one kind of work in one division. This approach will help our attorneys learn different facets of the real estate, land use and environmental practices so that they have the background and knowledge to find creative solutions to complex problems. We want to provide a climate where our attorneys have the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of land use and development law.

Second, we must make it easy and efficient for people, regardless of where they are coming from, to access that knowledge. And that means creating a structure that allows for all those concerns to be dealt with in one Division. Bouncing people and projects around from division to division simply doesn't lend itself to a seamless and streamlined process.

If it's important to attract the best and brightest into public service, and then retain them, how does the City Attorney's office effectively compete for talent when law firms are paying first year law graduates six-figure salaries? How do you make the public experience competitive?

Our goal is to make this City Attorney's Office the best public law firm in the country. To do that Rocky has hired outstanding lawyers for his Executive Management staff, from his Chief Deputy, former U.S. Attorney Terry Bowers, to special assistants with experience at the major law firms in town. From the top on down, Rocky is seeking to set a standard of excellence for every new hire.

Rocky is also exploring other ways to attract young lawyers, including thoughts of a high profile fellowship program which would introduce second or third year law students to the Office.

The summer they spend with us in law school will show them that once they graduate they can find something in this office not available to them in private law firms-opportunities to play significant roles in major deals early in their practice. Rather than merely reviewing leases for 2 years or working on small piece of a huge project, a young lawyer in our office can have the opportunity to be a part of a project from entitlements to environmental review to understanding funding sources. It's a tremendous opportunity for young lawyers to truly be a part of the growth and evolution of the City.

As you know, every law firm has a culture and ethic that competitively define it. Given the size of the City's law firm and its history, how hard is it to positively change its often reactive and unaccountable culture?

The City Attorney's Office is approximately 900 people, including over 400 lawyers. Because we are spread across offices and divisions throughout the City, it's hard to characterize the culture. Our general culture is one of public service, of providing solid advice to the client, being mindful of saving the City money and avoiding litigation when possible.

My Division specifically has approximately 55 lawyers, a number of whom (particularly the newer lawyers) with experience in the private sector. Because of that experience, the Division has the capacity to evolve a culture that is very creative and entrepreneurial. This team really thinks at the macro-level. And that is really where the evolution of the City Attorney's Office will be.

You sound very enthusiastic about your new responsibilities. But having worked in the past for Councilwoman Galanter, Assemblymember Katz and Resources Secretary Nichols, you're aware that critics of the City Attorney's office often assert that the Office is either a dead letter drawer or a settlement cash machine. With your newly acquired insider's vantage, are these unfair criticisms?

There is an enormous wealth of talent in the new Division and in the entire office. The historic characterizations about the Office may be unfair and untrue. I believe that some of that may be in response to more the bureaucratic difficulties in navigating through the City in general and less about the specific Office of the City Attorney. We can become an easy scapegoat. If somebody wants to slow down a process or they don't want to admit that they don't like a project, they oftentimes say, "It's stuck in the City Attorney's Office."

As we continue to reshape this Office, people will begin to understand that the changes we're implementing are making a difference. People will get questions answered in writing, calls returned promptly and instead of being told only what the law doesn't allow, they will be presented with options, advice and perhaps some creative ways to structure deals and solve problems.

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Your office serves as counsel for the CDD and the Planning and Housing Dept's. What's the nature of that representation? Can you offer more than narrow legal advice? Does your representation include problem solving?

This office has the ability to understand our client's business, understand the problems they're facing, pay attention to evolving trends in different industries as well as suggest creative frameworks and public-private partnerships. Because of that experience, we can now play a proactive role in solving their problems.

By understanding the land use and development environment, the City Attorney's Office can now advise the City, the Council and the Mayor as to ways it can be more creative, possible problems that may come up and opportunities that should be explored.

I'll give you one example. The affordable housing community came to us about lead poisoning. Their idea was to use the city's existing code enforcement authority as a way to go after landlords who are not addressing lead paint problems in their buildings. To address this concern, the City Attorney's office pulled together every attorney who dealt with lead-from the land use division to the environmental crimes unit-and researched what issues were problematic. What we realized was that the current ordinance was simply not strong enough, that the buildings in question needed to be better identified and that none of that would happen without working in partnership with the County, which has the public health expertise we need to solve the problem. After addressing those issues we worked with specific Councilmembers to suggest a way to strengthen the County's lead ordinance, create a workable prosecution and enforcement mechanism and urge that the City pursue federal funding for it.

As you know, the largest developer in metropolitan L.A. is LAUSD. The School District has never been an easy collaborator with local government. Can we expect anything more than rancor and frustration when the City and School District are required to join in finding sites and constructing usable community facilities?

The City Planning Department is currently working on streamlining the school siting and approval process. We envision ourselves working in partnership with them, the Mayor's Office and the City Council to help smooth over the difficulties, identify problems and implement some real solutions to aid in the siting of schools. Those kinds of partnerships are the ones we need to develop, build and grow.

But let's be realistic, with the school siting and construction process essentially a state-driven funding and regulatory process, is there any place at the table for local jurisdictions to truly partner with LAUSD? How best might the City Attorney's Office facilitate such collaboration?

A critical issue that's come up and has been mentioned time and time again is joint use. The City Attorney's Office has as its client the Recreation and Parks Dept. That department has access to both local and state park bonds. That money could be used wisely to help aid with the joint siting of both schools and housing. Perhaps the City Attorney's Office can aid in helping these different agencies see the relationship between those priorities and offer a creative way that all involved can benefit.

Now at present I'm not sure what the exact structure of that solution would be, but to not utilize the knowledge in the City Attorney's Office seems unproductive. We need to be at the table and involved in the debate so that we can aid these agencies in crafting joint use agreements and using our relationships with the development and planning communities to benefit all involved, both at the local and state levels.

It is said, "hard cases make bad law." For example, the Rube Goldberg-like environmental regulations that came out of the Belmont crisis have affected development throughout the city. What's the potential for the City Attorney's Office to play a significant role in rationalizing our current environmental review process for development, both public and private?

You're right, bad projects make bad laws. And bad politics make bad laws. And that's what Belmont is all about. There's no question in my mind that that school can be made safe.

The role of the City Attorney's Office must be to advise our clients when there are real concerns about a site. But our duty does not end with that. We must also be ready to tell them when their site is being used as a political football. We need to be bold. We need to investigate and we need to be proactive, not merely to answer the questions asked, but to give advice and truly inform our clients of the real risks associated with a certain project.

Lastly, we've touched on how the City Attorney's Office might win the individual battles, but how can it win the war? What defines good practice for this new "Super Division" a year or two from now? How will you know whether you're doing a good job?

First, with regard to the public sector, our most important client, we must make them believe that the City Attorney's Office is an important member of their team. They must see us as a partner and a problem solver.

Second, we must alter our perception in the private sector. When innovative and creative projects come to the City do they see the City Attorney's Office as an important part of their team? If we have a developer who wants to redevelop a portion of Downtown, do they come to us upfront instead of trying to avoid us? If we can address those concerns and have people approach us, ask us to be part of their team and talk to us from day one, then we can start to make some strides not only in the City Attorney's Office but citywide.

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