Wed, Aug

Bell Tolls for Nuch’s ACE Program

RETHINKING LA - The flotsam and jetsam left in the wake of Bell’s dramatic municipal meltdown should serve as a warning that City Attorney Carmen “Nuch” Trutanich’s Administrative Citation Enforcement (ACE) program is a revenue enhancement scheme that replaces due process with “due on demand!”

The City Attorney’s office refers to the ACE program as a “promising proposal” that will provide “real-time and cost-effective enforcement” of our City’s Municipal Code, including “broken window” violations, while simultaneously generating revenue for the City.

Chief Deputy City Attorney William Carter says the program will de-criminalize illegal construction work, illegal street vending, and other low-level misdemeanors and allow city departments to fine perpetrators instead.

Proponents of the program claim the streamlined process will divert tens of thousands of cases a year from backlogged criminal courtrooms, delivering justice swiftly and efficiently.

Critics point out that the “swift and efficient delivery of justice” comes at the expense of due process and neutral oversight, pointing out that the City Attorney will have authority over the Administrative Law Judges who will hear the cases, tipping the scales of justice in favor of the city and at the expense of its residents.

Arguments in favor of LA’s proposed ACE program typically include comparisons to similar programs in San Diego, Santa Monica, and Sacramento. Much is made of their successes but little notice is paid to the differences, such as firewalls between the prosecution and the hearing officers.

LA’s program would have the City Attorney’s office enforcing code violations and also hiring, training, and administering the judicial element of the program. It’s hard to call this anything other than a “judge and jury” scenario that is stacked in favor of enforcement at the expense of due process.

The most powerful argument against LA’s proposed ACE program looks to the City of Bell and examines all that went wrong with their turbo charged code enforcement program that also focused on efficiency and revenue enhancement at the expense of its residents.

The LA Times covered Bell’s code enforcement scheme and reported “Legal experts point to a lack of due process and judicial oversight in hundreds of ‘civil compromises’ in which plumbers, carpet cleaners and bottle-gatherers paid up to $1,000 for alleged code violations.”

The Times continues, “Experts said Bell's practice was unheard of elsewhere and legally questionable on at least two grounds: the failure to have a judge review the "settlements" and the seizure of property, which was often done on the grounds that cars, trucks and other goods were evidence needed for investigations that do not appear to have taken place.”

LA’s ACE program includes a provision that would allow the City Attorney’s office to retain the authority to prosecute the violations, while at the same time allowing it to take people out of the criminal court system and into an administrative program where the emphasis is on efficiency and revenue.

Critics claim that the ACE program, as proposed in Los Angeles, will allow a complaint-driven code enforcement policy to power a revenue generation process that imposes an administrative and financial burden on those who can afford it the least, the working class and small-business operators who already struggle to survive.

There is no dispute that code enforcement in the City of LA is a mess and that there are dozens of departments with some authority and responsibility over the administration of the law, the codes, the rules, and the policies of the City of LA.

The idea that City Hall could operate more efficiently is valid, but any steps in that direction must come with a commitment to due process and to justice. The moment revenue enhancement is positioned as justification for enhancing law enforcement authority, a dangerous line gets crossed.

LA’s ACE program has already crossed that line, one where the City Attorney’s office talks of “decriminalizing code violations” and “enforcing quality of life issues” but fails to acknowledge the absence of checks and balances and instead is pitching the ACE program based on its budget balancing merits.

LA’s program has too much in common with Bell’s code enforcement program which was overseen by City Prosecutor Eric Eggena. In both cases the focus on revenue is transparent and at the expense of due process. In both cases, the pursuit of revenue from citations, impounds, and settlements is a powerful motivating force that operates at the expense of those who can least afford to fight for their rights.

The City Attorney’s mandate is three-fold; to provide legal advice and guidance to the City of LA, to improve the quality of life and public safety through prosecution of criminal misdemeanors and implementation of innovative crime prevention measures, and to effectively and efficiently represent the City in civil litigation and transactions.

If the ACE program is approved, the City Attorney will be able to add “Balance the City’s budget on the backs of those who can least afford it!” to the mandate.

Mayor Villaraigosa’s ill-conceived “cost recovery” mandate continues to relieve City Hall of an obligation to focus on the delivery of services, instead shifting the focus to revenue enhancement.

The City Attorney’s ACE program clearly crosses the line and pits the City of LA against its residents and small businesses, positioning them as simple revenue generators. LA’s citizens should beware of for whom the Bell tolls.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at:                [email protected] .) –cw

Tags: Carmen Trutanich, City Attorney, ACE Program, Administrative Citation Enforcement, Bell, City of Bell

Vol 9 Issue 75
Pub: Sept 16, 2011