An Easy, Green Choice for Los Angeles City Attorney

06/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If the City of Los Angeles is ever going to become one of the nation's greenest cities, the city's top lawyer must be a big part of leading the charge to clean up our rivers and coastline, fight environmental injustice and demand environmental accountability from polluters.

As a City Council member, Jack Weiss has a record overall on the environment that is excellent based on any measure. Moreover, in contrast to his opponent's career focus on defending those accused of environmental crimes, this record is even more notable. That's why environmental attorneys in Los Angeles like David Beckman and me support Jack Weiss.

We know from nearly a decade of personal experience that Jack was willing to go up against the city bureaucracy to change its environmental policies even when there was no upside for him and his labors were largely invisible to the press and the public. This willingness to support the environment without glory -- to do the hard work in the trenches -- is the truest test of a candidate's environmental bona fides. Jack passes this test with flying colors.

Jack Weiss was the first member of the Los Angeles City Council to support settlement of the landmark sewage litigation in Santa Monica Baykeeper v. City of Los Angeles. Mr. Weiss spoke up when it was not popular and when many others on the council leveled harsh criticism against the environmental community. Mr. Weiss's stalwart efforts eventually helped the parties reach a settlement agreement in what the U.S. Department of Justice calls "one of the largest sewage cases in U.S. history." The city's efforts under the settlement have resulted in a 71% reduction in sewage spills. Councilmember Weiss also led the City Council's efforts to resolve disputes about cleaning up the Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek as well as strengthening the Los Angeles Municipal Stormwater permit. Were it not for the efforts of Jack Weiss, the City of Los Angeles might still be fighting cleanup and wasting millions in taxpayer dollars while doing so.

Since then, Mr. Weiss's record of strong environmental protection has continued. He has served as the founding chair of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission and is the current President of the Santa Monica Bay Watershed Council. He also has crafted a strong environmental plan and won the endorsement of prominent environmentalists such as Ed Begley Jr., Senator Barbara Boxer and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Meanwhile, Carmen Trutanich has not worked on the side of the environment for over 20 years. As lawyers ourselves, we would never suggest that a lawyer is an environmental criminal because he decides to spend the majority of his professional efforts defending those accused of environmental offenses. Defense attorneys play an important role in the judicial system. But Mr. Trutanich seeks a political post where the public is entitled to, and should, consider a wider range of factors. In the real world, a person's work and the law practice he labored to build fairly provides insight into his orientation and experience.

Perhaps there are those that could spend twenty years defending those accused of environmental crimes and then switch sides without missing a beat. But that does not appear to be the case with Mr. Trutanich. The way Mr. Trutanich's law practice and the actions of some of his clients have bled into his own personal perspectives are made clear in his campaign literature. One need look no further than Mr. Trutanich's website for confirmation of the lax attitude toward enforcement he would be likely to take if elected. That website prominently promises that when it comes to environmental enforcement Mr. Trutanich is interested in "compliance" and not "fees." This is Orwellian code language we frequently see in environmental circles. Translated it means that if you get caught polluting, Mr. Trutanich won't punish you, he will just make you clean up your act. In reality, this posture serves as the largest disincentive to compliance imaginable because it creates no incentive to protect the environment in the first place, since if you don't and get caught you will suffer no penalty. Mr. Trutanich's website is where he informs the public of his views; it is unfiltered; has nothing to do with his clients; it is Mr. Trutanich speaking for himself.

Contradicting his own website, Mr. Trutanich continues to claim he'll be tough on polluters if elected. As a defense attorney, however, Mr. Trutanich has shown otherwise, not only defending some of the area's worst violators, but going so far as to assert that the City of Los Angeles does not have legal standing to pursue polluters in court. Whether that absurd claim reflects his own personal view or not, where Mr. Trutanich does pursue environmental enforcement, it certainly will be an interesting legal dance for him to explain his new cases when confronted with the very same defenses he raised only months earlier as a private attorney.

In an election, your record matters. Whatever the ultimate meaning of Mr. Trutanich's lifetime of environmental defense work, his record certainly pales compared to Mr. Weiss' on the environment. Given a choice between a pro-environment sure thing and someone who can point to nothing in the last two decades of his life remotely comparable, the choice in our view is an easy one for anyone who cares about the environment in Los Angeles.

David S. Beckman, a senior environmental attorney in Los Angeles, co-authored this post. The views expressed herein are the personal views of the authors.