For their next city attorney, Los Angeles voters will choose between two outsiders with very different legal backgrounds and different ideas of how to serve as the city’s lawyer.
Neither Faisal Gill, who took the lead in the June primary, nor second-place finisher Hydee Feldstein Soto have worked in City Hall or held political office in Los Angeles. That’s somewhat unusual. The city attorney’s office has often been seen by politicians as another rung on the ladder to higher office, including mayor, even though it’s an underappreciated and often-misunderstood position.
In the primary, we recommended Feldstein Soto as the best candidate because she would bring deep legal expertise and independence to the job. And we still think she is the right choice in the Nov. 8 general election.
Feldstein Soto was a partner in corporate law firms with specialties in bankruptcy and acquisitions. It was complex work that required collaboration and problem-solving to finalize deals, which is good training for city government. She managed teams of lawyers with different specialties, much like the city attorney’s office of 500-plus lawyers.
Unlike the county’s district attorney, which is primarily a prosecutorial role, the city attorney wears many hats that require different skills. The city attorney is legal counsel to the mayor, City Council and city departments and advises them what they can and can’t do. The office handles lawsuits filed for and against the city, which includes everything from contract disputes to slip-and-fall complaints to civil rights violations. And the city attorney is a law enforcement official responsible for deciding when and if to prosecute individuals accused of misdemeanors, which include vandalism, petty theft, DUI and other lower-level offenses that carry a maximum penalty of a year in jail.
Feldstein Soto acknowledges the breadth of the job, as well as its limitations. The city attorney is not a policymaker, but the office can help implement policy. She wants to streamline the process for affordable and homeless housing developments by working with city agencies to create a single review and faster approvals.
She has demonstrated humility about what she doesn’t know and an eagerness to consult experts to learn. Over the last several months, she’s talked to judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to understand what is and isn’t working so she can make her office’s approach to criminal justice more effective and humane, including policies on when to seek cash bail and when to offer diversion instead of prosecution. She has also pledged to commission an analysis of arrests and charges to evaluate whether enforcement is being applied fairly across the city.
Gill has solid legal and policy experience, but he has shown an inconsistency on policies and issues that troubles us. He started his law career in the Navy’s Judge Advocate Corps. He later worked in the federal government, including serving as policy director in the Department of Homeland Security during the George W. Bush administration, before moving to private practice. Gill was a longtime member of the Republican Party, and when he ran for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2007 he advocated against gay marriage and abortion. After experiencing discrimination while running for that office, Gill said his positions and politics shifted. He switched to the Democratic Party shortly after and later ran for office in Vermont.
Gill’s campaign has focused on criminal justice and police reform. But his pledges have created confusion about what he actually would or could do. For example, he has proposed a 100-day pause on new prosecutions (he later clarified that his office would still file in serious and time-sensitive cases in the interim) to evaluate the office’s procedures and implement diversion options. And his statements on how he would handle civil lawsuits filed against the Los Angeles Police Department and police officers have left observers confused as to whether he would defend the department or its employees (which the office is required to do as the lawyer for city agencies).
The city attorney job in City Hall demands a clear understanding of the responsibilities and limitations of the position. We prefer Feldstein Soto’s pragmatic approach to the job.
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