Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Garcetti Does Battle With Board of Supervisors Over His Budget—and Fares Well
By ROGER M. GRACE
121st in a Series
Gil Garcetti, in his first term as district attorney (1992-96), demonstrated persistence, doggedly battling efforts by the Board of Supervisors to slash his budget in the course of trimming overall county spending.
The supervisors had to cope in 1993 with a shortage of funds, indeed, the prospect of bankruptcy. Garcetti’s message to supervisors was, in effect: “Yeah, I know there’s presently a $174 million deficit, I know you have to cut spending, but if you do it in my department, you’ll jeopardize public safety—so chop away somewhere else.”
Then-Sheriff Sherman Block (since deceased) voiced the same sort of admonishment.
Heads of county departments were told to devise one budget reflecting an 8 percent cut, and another with a 25 percent reduction. In a March 10, 1993, report to the supervisors, Garcetti said that clipping 8 percent from his current $144 million budget—amounting to $12 million—would require laying off 157 deputy DAs; with a 25 percent cutback, he advised, he would have to give walking papers to 356 prosecutors, 144 clerical workers, and 40 investigators.
A March 10 article in the Torrance Daily Breeze quotes Garcetti as telling the newspaper the previous day:
“It’s just crazy. I can’t function.
“I can’t handle an 8 percent cut; I can’t even handle a 4 percent cut. But they’re asking for that.”
The Los Angeles Times’ issue that day quotes him as declaring that an 8 percent cut “would decimate us,” warning:
“That means we’re out of municipal courts. We will not handle misdemeanors.”
The DA’s Office prosecutes misdemeanors—at that time, about 275,000 a year—in cities without their own prosecutors or in unincorporated areas of the county.
At a news conference on March 10, Garcetti threatened to sue the county if the cuts being contemplated were made in his department’s budget. He did not delineate the legal theory upon which he might proceed. The March 11 issue of the MetNews attributes this statement to him:
“I have responsibility to the community—I have a constitutional obligation. If that means serving lawsuits, I will do that.”
The article also reports statements he made the night before at a Bench-Bar-Media Committee meeting attended by about 150 judges, lawyers and journalists. There, he admitted a suit against the county for more funding might prove “worthless” since the county was facing the prospect of a budget shortfall of more than $1.1 billion.
Too, Garcetti said at the meeting that one alternative would be to file cases and not show up to prosecute them. In any such instance, he explained, the judge would have to “either dismiss the case or appoint a special prosecutor” at county expense.
The article continues:
“A spokesperson for Garcetti’s office said yesterday that the district attorney’s remarks about forcing appointment of special prosecutors were based on Penal Code Sec. 1130 and Government Code Sec. 26500.
“The Government Code provision states that the district attorney ‘is the public prosecutor, except as otherwise provided by law,’ while the Penal Code section requires judges to appoint ‘some attorney at law to perform the duties of the prosecuting attorney’ if the district attorney ‘fails to attend at the trial in the superior court.’ ”
On the first day of budget hearings, on July 12, Garcetti told supervisors that the proposal by the Chief Administrative Office to pare his budget by $8.2 million would mean a loss of up to 188 attorneys. The next day’s issue of the Daily News reports that he cautioned:
“If I don’t receive funds for 188 prosecutors, we won’t handle 275,000 misdemeanors, including driving while intoxicated, carrying a concealed weapon, drug possession and misdemeanor spousal abuse. Not even one petty theft will be prosecuted. Tell that to your business community that’s thinking about locating here.”
An article that same day in the MetNews includes this comment by Garcetti:
“If there is ever a time to prosecute more crime, not less, it’s now. The fear of wanton, random crime is destroying our cities and our citizens are desperate for us to restore law and order.”
The account continues:
“First District Supervisor Gloria Molina, who has fought with Garcetti and Sheriff Sherman Block over funding for county’s law enforcement agencies in the past, suggested that Garcetti was dramatizing the effect the cut would have on his office.
“ ‘It is a minute cut compared to the other departments,’ Molina said. ‘We’re going to try and restore as much as we can for law enforcement, but it has to be understood, eyeball to eyeball, that every dollar I give to you I take away from health and welfare.’ ”
A report in the Daily News on July 14 tells of Garcetti alerting a small group of merchants at the Glendale Galleria that unless funds were restored to him: “What will happen with every shop owner here is that it will be open season for shoplifting.”
The article notes:
“If the District Attorney’s Office stops prosecuting misdemeanors, the county would lose at least $50 million a year from fines levied against defendants, officials said.”
Garcetti returned to the board room on the last day of the budget hearings, July 20. His appearance was unscheduled.
By then, some supervisors were exasperated over his aggressiveness. He had been appearing on talk shows, as well as traveling through the county trying to enlist aid from mayors and civic groups to put pressure on the board to boost its appropriation to him.
The Daily News, in its issue the following day, recites that then-Supervisor Ed Edelman told the DA:
“Your campaign, frankly, against this Board of Supervisors that I see in the papers does not do you or your office any good. You’ve got to think about the consequences of your approach.”
The Times, also on July 21, quotes Edelman as counseling:
“Coming back here day after day does not have a positive impact. We have already been overly generous.”
Then-Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke is quoted as chiming in:
“It’s backfiring, Gil.”
The feisty chief prosecutor shot back, according to the Times:
“It may be backfiring, but what I’m doing and will continue to do is to tell you what the consequences are.”
The only ally Garcetti had on the board that day was Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who declared that proposed cuts in the budgets of the DA’s Office and the Sheriff’s Department were “not acceptable,” and that health and welfare services should be pared, instead.
A $13.5-billion budget was adopted on July 29, by a 3-2 vote. Antonovich and fellow conservative Deane Dana were vexed over the extent of cuts to the budgets of Garcetti’s office and law enforcement, in particular, the Sheriff’s Office. However, the cuts were not nearly as deep as had earlier been envisioned.
As reported the next day in the MetNews, the 3-2 majority voted “to restore ‘essential functions’ funding of $7 million to the sheriff and $3 million to the district attorney. The additional funding reduced the sheriff’s budget cut to 2 percent and the district attorney’s to 4.4 percent.”
Still, the DA’s Office did take a hit, and there was the prospect of additional chunks of funding being removed.
There were, however, no layoffs. The DA transferred deputies and investigators into programs funded by the state or the federal government.
And the office did not cease prosecuting accused misdemeanants. At a monthly open house in his office on Sept. 15, the DA announced that business and community leaders had prevailed upon him to continue those efforts. He declared: “I have to go forward to prosecute misdemeanors and all felonies, even if technically I don’t have the money to do it.”
The Daily News, in covering that meeting, relates Garcetti’s statement that he would go to the Board of Supervisors in May to seek additional funds, remarking:
“[I]f the board takes me on, then I guess we go to political battle. Then I go to the community.”
Garcetti voiced then—as he would constantly before the November General Election—support for a measure to extend a half-cent component of the sales tax to support “public safety” efforts, including DA’s offices.
On Nov. 2, voters approved the measure.
Did that mean an end to Garcetti’s budget woes, and a cease-fire with supervisors? No.
With more money in the county’s kitty, Garcetti proclaimed a need for $10 million of it. By board action on Dec. 13, he was granted $3 million.
The county still faced fiscal woes.
Too, there were concerns among supervisors that Garcetti had been blithely spending more than had been allocated to him.
At the July 20 budget hearing, Edelman, in rebuffing Garcetti’s budget demands, snapped at the DA:
“‘You want us to make up your overexpenditures for last year.”
A Dec. 12 article in the Daily News and in the Daily Breeze says:
“According to Antonovich, Garcetti overspent his budget by $9.6 million last year and is on a pace to go $10.4 million over budget this year.”
The article also reflects Antonovich’s uneasiness over funds being expended by Garcetti on a community outreach program. It quotes him as saying it was “counterproductive and costly” to have prosecutors addressing schoolchildren and community groups when “[w]e need the attorneys in the courtroom prosecuting the criminals.”
The following year, Garcetti persisted in his efforts to pry more funding from the board.
A March 22, 1994, Associated Press dispatch says:
“Budget cuts and a rise in violent crime forced the county’s top prosecutor to begin dismantling many white collar crime units, officials say.
“The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office stopped accepting new environmental, worker safety and major fraud cases today.
“District Attorney Gil Garcetti has said that, barring budget relief, the units will be completely dismantled by July 1.”
A Times editorial on March 27 opines:
“Clearly, prosecution of violent crimes, even without a ‘three strikes’ law, must be a high priority for any district attorney. But this is true also for white-collar fraud and workplace and environmental safety violations. The L.A. County D.A.’s office has earned an impressive reputation for its aggressive prosecution of these crimes. The D.A.’s Environmental Crimes/OSHA Division (ECOD) was the first special unit of its kind in the nation to pursue felony prosecutions. It is now the nation’s largest regional environmental crime unit, having handled more than 400 cases since 1987.
“Moreover, these prosecutorial efforts have not only increased compliance with workplace and environmental safety laws but also generated $13 million for the state and county through fines and restitution….
“Garcetti says that to meaningfully pursue these crimes he needs additional county funds to hold together this and other special units. But county supervisors, some of whom are annoyed with Garcetti for budget overruns and past threats to cease certain misdemeanor prosecutions, say that every county agency is suffering and that there are no additional funds.”
The editorial suggests that “surely there is room to maneuver here.”
It turned out that supervisors discovered that there was.
On April 12, the supervisors voted 5-0 to allocate $3.8 million to the sorts of prosecutions Garcetti had halted, but, saving face, exacted from him a promise to stop exceeding his budget. Well, it was a promise of sorts. The April 13 issue of the Long Beach Press Telegram reports that a Garcetti spokesperson “said Garcetti has agreed ‘in spirit’ to keep within his 1994-95 budget—provided that budget does not drop below $126 million.”
An agreement “in spirit” is not much of a promise.
The Times on April 13 quotes Molina as saying of the DA:
“I think he created a lot of stress and pressure for a lot of board members, but I have seen no confirmation that he is willing to live within his budget. But what can you do to a guy who’s holding a gun to your head?”
Tension between Garcetti and the board continued. Overall, the DA prevailed. Garcetti, by making high-decibel noise, and leveling threats, staved off anticipated budgetary reductions that could have crippled prosecutorial operations.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company