A dozen years after he left the Los Angeles City Council, Mike Feuer is back in L.A.'s civic life, this time in City Hall East, as the newly elected city attorney. His several careers are all of a piece: running the low-income legal service group Bet Tzedek; half a dozen years in the Assembly, where he made his mark as a forceful and adroit legislator. His wife is a judge, his two kids are Yalies — he's a Harvard Law grad — and his politics are personal.
You were elected on the same ballot that saw voters restrict marijuana dispensaries. What's the plan for enforcing that?
Last week we posted a list of dispensaries which, according to the records of the city, may be eligible for limited immunity from prosecution. The list itself does not confer any rights. We have posted frequently asked questions that will make it easier to understand the rules. We'll be moving imminently to enforce Measure D.
What's your feeling about medical marijuana?
People who are sick with cancer or other debilitating Illnesses have to have access to medical marijuana to alleviate their suffering. At the same time, there have been too many dispensaries, too close together, too close to schools, and they haven't been taxed properly.
Your office may appeal the federal courts' upholding of a ban on destroying the property of homeless people on L.A.'s skid row, a result of a lawsuit. What's your take on that?
There are elements of this litigation I see as an opportunity to solve a problem. Litigation is rather a blunt instrument and has yet to get to the underlying issues. The fact that there is litigation means there has been a failure of public policy. It's important to address homelessness in a nuanced way.
I'm committed to striking a balance that enhances conditions for homeless people, protects public safety, assures businesses can operate and improves the quality of life for all our residents. The notice of appeal preserves all our options as we strive to find that balance.
The county's responsible for many homeless matters like public health.
If you're living on skid row or have a business there, you don't care much about who's got the authority. You want authority to be exercised. Issues of cleanliness and sanitation — we're going to find a way through those. Litigation surrounding whether goods can be collected just touch the surface. There's a core legitimacy to everyone's perspective; a zero-sum approach isn't going to cut it. I have in mind bringing stakeholders here for meetings to try to find common ground, getting people who aren't listening carefully to each other to start listening carefully.
You almost became city attorney in 2001. How different are you now?
I had six years in the Legislature; I was chairman of the Judiciary Committee for four of those years. I was deeply involved in the court system, in writing laws that have an impact on the office I occupy now. I went to work for a law firm; I've had experiences that made me a better lawyer.
What things are Angelenos asking you to do?
Folks are looking for ways this office can tangibly improve the quality of life. I was at a town hall the night of the NBA finals. I assumed it would be sparsely attended. There were hundreds of people. A young man stood up, and he said, "As a man of color I don't feel safe, I don't feel I'm respected by the police." I asked if he felt safe walking to school. He said he did not.
Could I help make it safer to him to be around his school, to strengthen ties between him and his friends and the police?
In other communities, people are concerned about the enforcement of city codes, key quality-of-life issues, noise, or a property that's been foreclosed on and the lender hasn't maintained that property. This is the bull's-eye work the city attorney's office can do.
In the Legislature and City Council, you wrote laws about gun sales, trigger locks, high-capacity magazines and the like. Yet your new office only handles misdemeanors. Don't most gun violations involve felonies?
No. A criminal shooting is a felony. The laws I've written are misdemeanors, but they're significant. Take the law to ban high-capacity magazines or limiting handgun sales to one a month. Enforcement of those laws is a facet of what we can do [at the state and local level].
Had enforcement fallen by the wayside?
Rather than critiquing what happened before, I want to emphasize the now, focus on the areas where problems are most acute, because I don't have enough resources to focus on everything all at once. If that means assuring that we bring our nuisance abatement efforts to bear near a school site, if that means focusing on areas of town that are pervaded with gun violence, that's what we can do. There are civil litigation approaches we can take. There are new laws we can promote. All these are areas where the city attorney can add value on the violence issues.
What else will you focus on?
The city [attorney's office] is the defender of all civil litigation against the city, so whether it's the homeless issues or suits regarding the airport or Owens Valley, one has to have the resources to defend that litigation. Those lawsuits in many cases [are] an opportunity to solve a problem as opposed to merely trying to fend off a lawsuit. And there's a role using the law as a sword on behalf of people in the city. I have to balance those needs.
I [support] restorative justice. Take quality-of-life crimes: The offender, as part of the sentence, should contribute to improving the community they degraded. It might be graffiti cleanup. If there's prostitution, it might be [helping] get people redirected. There are certainly times when jail is appropriate, but we should be thinking about sentences that actually create a tangible benefit.
What tasks do you want to take on that don't appear in the job description?
I am very concerned about the limited participation of voters in this last election cycle. All of us in public service have a responsibility to inspire the public to believe that there's integrity in government, that our intervention in a situation is going to make it better. I am under no illusions that anyone in local government is going to fix anything on their own. It's a partnership with the people we serve. I know it sounds corny, but to have a job where all I need to care about is how to make the world better is very precious, and we need to communicate to people who aren't voting that their lack of engagement is diminishing the quality of public service, and their engagement can elevate it.
You were coauthor of the prison realignment law that sends nonviolent, non-serious, non-sexual offenders to local jails. What repercussions will you be dealing with?
Federal judges are demanding that the state actually release felons from state prison. No one wants that. We have to be smart about sentences that may or may not include incarceration.
The city pays out millions in liability lawsuits every year, including for the LAPD. What can you do about that?
It's among the things I'm thinking about. Chief [Charlie] Beck and I have a specific list of steps to try to reduce lawsuit paths regarding employment in the Police Department. People want more fire and police services, they want their streets paved and sidewalks repaired, and every nickel we pay in a lawsuit payout is a nickel that isn't being attributed to what people care about most.
My colleague Jim Newton wrote a column about the good relationship between you and Mayor Eric Garcetti. It also said you two could be a little holier-than-thou in your political passion. Do you see that?
[Laughs] I'm not concerned about that. I've only found a tremendous outpouring of support and warmth from the council and the mayor and the city controller. It's hard to imagine a better start.
You've been a legislator, now you're an executive. How different is that?
The city attorney is an elected official and, at the same time, manager of one of the largest public law firms in the country. "Decimation" may be too strong a word, but it is close to accurate to describe the diminution of resources [for] the city attorney's office, and yet expectations for services have remained the same. I have to reverse that diminution. I need to inspire a staff. I need to be advancing key policy objectives. I have to advocate in Sacramento and Washington in addition to City Hall.
You say your family gave you this sense of public service you talk about.
My grandparents came to Boyle Heights from Russia by way of Cuba. My grandfather opened Don Manuel's mercantile store in Boyle Heights. My mother grew up speaking Spanish and Russian and Yiddish and only then English. Most of her friends thought she was Latina until she got to UCLA. She imbued in us a sense of respecting other people, looking at people's differences as a way to enrich ourselves. During World War II, my father was in Stalag 17 and barely survived. [He taught us] that life is short and kids are the most important thing. He still volunteers at the LAUSD. When I was growing up in San Bernardino, there were some significant racial conflicts. From an early age I have been focused on finding ways to bring together people from different backgrounds and find that common ground.
You had a serious traffic accident during the campaign. What happened?
I am very lucky to be alive. I was driving to [Dist. Atty.] Jackie Lacey's swearing-in. A big truck ran a red light and hit me on the driver's side. Without the side air bag in my Prius, I wouldn't be here. As it was, I had six broken ribs and a lung partially collapsed and other internal injuries. I got terrific care. When the paramedics arrived, I said a version of "Let me try to get up" and the response was, "Sir, follow our directions."
I was in ICU for five days. I said, "This is the middle of the campaign, I cannot miss any time now." They told me it was going to take months to get better; fortunately, I was able to recuperate much faster. When it's been a tough day, I say to myself, well, you can see the sky today.
For a while, everybody was on notice not to hug you because of your injuries. Are people still on notice?
Oh, hugging's fine now. I'm eminently huggable!
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.