NEW ORLEANS — Following a critical report by the New Orleans Office of Inspector General, the city attorney responded to calls for time-tracking and other improvements by highlighting the ways her office provides “highly efficient and effective legal representation.”
“Given the major challenges elsewhere in the criminal justice system, focusing on the city's Law Department is both misguided and misplaced,” City Attorney Rebecca Dietz wrote in a Feb. 29 letter to the editor of the Times-Picayune.
The letter was published in response to a newspaper story on the inspector general's report, which examined the legal department’s operations between 2008 and 2013, including how it uses taxpayer money as it "protects and pursues the city’s interests." The report was one in a series examining different facets of the justice system. It argued that decisions made by city attorneys ripple through the whole system, making their use of resources influential and important.
One recommendation in the report garnered the most attention. The inspector general recommends that city attorneys track the time they spend on cases to provide a transparent record of how the department allocates its resources, hold attorneys accountable to working efficiently, evaluate whether the department is staffed appropriately, and document workload and staffing to aid in transitions. The department had five different city attorneys during the years covered in the report.
“The potential for increased transparency and accountability in the expenditure of public resources outweighs any perceived drawbacks,” the report stated. “The mayor, city council, client departments and the public deserve the same access to information and assurance that public dollars are being spent efficiently and effectively that the Law Department expects from its outside attorneys.”
Dietz disagreed with this recommendation. She wrote that the department has mechanisms in place to assess attorneys, including regular performance reviews.
“But disseminating city attorneys' timekeeping records could break privilege, create a public record and potentially reveal confidential case strategy,” she wrote.
Dietz did not return requests for comment on this article.
Another recommendation suggested that the department address “deficiencies in (its) fractured case management system” that make it “inefficient and ineffective,” according to the report. The system in place prevented IG staff from figuring out how much litigation is generated by a single department. The report focused on the New Orleans Police Department.
Dietz, who joined the legal department in 2012 and started as city attorney in November, wrote that her office is looking for a better, cost-effective system.
“Case tracking and case management is part of our existing standard protocol," she wrote. "A new, comprehensive electronic data management system, however, would improve information sharing and aid in better tracking cases per department."
Her letter also outlines the different ways the department has sought to save money, including: hiring outside counsel less often after revising performance measures and implementing new methods for tracking savings; reaching a settlement with the New Orleans Fire Department, saving millions of dollars; and having city litigators work with the Risk Management team and Public Integrity Bureau to address New Orleans Police Department issues before and after civil suits are filed against police officers.
“Since Mayor Mitch Landrieu took office in May 2010, the Law Department has undergone significant changes,” Dietz wrote. “Mayor Landrieu is fully committed to improving the performance and accountability of all city departments and the many services provided to the citizens of New Orleans. The Law Department is no exception.”