Daily Press Staff Writer
After weathering three decades of local politics and more than a thousand City Council meetings, Assistant City Attorney Joseph Lawrence is stepping down from the dais and heading into retirement.
“If I haven’t snored it’s been an oversight,” Lawrence joked during Tuesday’s City Council meeting when members gave him a heartfelt farewell in front of his tearful wife Mary and a dozen attorneys from his office.
The man who twice served as interim City Attorney but never got the top job received a standing ovation during the meeting after councilmembers and City Manager Rick Cole praised Lawrence’s “extreme contribution” to Santa Monica.
Most notably, Lawrence brought the term Metyltertiary-Butyl Ether (MtBE) into the local lexicon in the late 1990’s, when the gasoline additive leaked from underground storage tanks at gas stations and pipelines, traveling through soil and water and into the City’s water supply.
The lawsuit was an uphill battle against the oil companies in murky (polluted) waters. In the end, the City received a $275 million settlement from Shell, ExxonMobile, Chevron, Conoco, Valero, Lyondell, Unocal, ARCO and TOSCO.
When combined with pollution lawsuits for other industrial solvents, the City received a whopping $400 million from major corporations.
A report by Lawrence himself noted it was “among the largest, if not the largest, cash recovery amount received by any city for resolving any kind of dispute, and certainly the largest by a modest sized city like Santa Monica.”
“This city is blessed with resources but also blessed with commitment,” Lawrence said of the lawsuits.
Cole noted Lawrence deserved credit for the City’s controversial consent decree to shorten the runway at Santa Monica Airport and gain control over operations at the end of 2028.
“When we flew together to Chicago…to negotiate with the Federal Aviation Administration, I saw the fortitude, the courage, the wisdom, the tenacity and the patience that has served this city so well over the last 30 years demonstrated to an extraordinary degree,” Cole said. The decree ended decades of legal opposition from the Federal Government over Santa Monica’s ability to control airport land.
Lawrence started in the City Attorney’s Office in 1986 after spending a decade as a staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California and for the New Haven Legal Assistance Association.
He served as a visiting professor and director for the Western Law Center for Disability Rights at Loyola Law School from 1984 to 1986.
Lawrence received his law degree from New York University.
In addition to his “keen mind” and “wit,” former City Attorney Marsha Moutrie praised Lawrence for the way he mentored the 45 staff members in the office.
“He was outstandingly kind and generous to his colleagues in many ways” Moutrie wrote in a letter to the City Council. “He took time to hear individual’s concerns and help them work through frustrations.”
“People really like you, Joe,” Councilmember Kevin McKeown noted at the farewell. Councilmember Tony Vazquez revealed Lawrence had been his number one choice for the top job during a nationwide search in the 1990’s.
The gratitude led to another joke from Lawrence.
“You feel at these events you are witnessing your own funeral or something,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence plans to use his retirement to spend more time with his grandchildren and said he is proud when he looks back at his career in public service.
“On the balance you can advance the public good…that has been a rare opportunity that you’ve given me to do that,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence’s last day in the office will be Nov. 9.