As Renne Public Law Group celebrated its first anniversary on March 1, we asked Partner Arthur “Art” Hartinger—who founded the firm along with Louise Renne, Jon Holtzman and Teresa Stricker—to talk a bit about the firm and to reflect on his 33-year career in labor and employment law. Here, Mr. Hartinger offers insight on his background, practice and projects, and offers a few predictions of and solutions for upcoming challenges in the world of labor and local government.
Tell us about Renne Public Law Group.
AH: Louise, Jon, Teresa and I wanted to create a law firm that was committed to advocating and problem solving for public agencies, especially solving the hardest problems and cases. As San Francisco City Attorney, Louise pioneered affirmative litigation on behalf of San Francisco. We wanted to have that—acting as plaintiffs to bring about change to help local communities and make the world a better place—as a component of what we do.
In your role as a partner, on what types of projects do you focus?
AH: My focus is on labor and employment, but I also handle complex public agency litigation in other practice areas. In the labor and employment niche, we have a wide range of cases, such as alleged wage hour class actions and vested rights cases in connection with pension plans and retiree medical plans. We also do collective bargaining and interest arbitration, which are large bargaining projects that are submitted to an arbitrator for final decision. They’re high-stakes cases with a lot of moving parts.
What’s your approach to the challenges associated with terminating employees?
AH: Every agency in California faces a need to terminate an employee, an action that involves inherent legal risk. Sometimes there’s a specific problem, sometimes it’s a lack of confidence that develops over time and sometimes someone commits malfeasance of some kind. Addressing the latter category, I would say that—in the context of helping local agencies deliver services—a bad apple in the ranks can bring down the whole organization. We have certainly seen that in police organizations, for example. If we can help with that, I feel good about it. For example, if we are dealing with a police officer who has lied, suppressed evidence or sexually harassed someone, and can help the agency terminate the employment, that’s a good thing for assuring public trust in government.
You and your team all have extensive experience working with a lot of different cities, communities and organizations. How does that experience add value for your clients?
AH: We have unparalleled local agency experience. We have nine attorneys with thirty or more years of experience in local government issues. Having handled myriad matters, and helped agencies overcome numerous obstacles and challenges, we’ve seen just about every problem our clients can face. This is an obvious advantage. But so is creative advocacy and problem solving, which all of our attorneys try to bring to municipal law, whether or not they are senior.
What made you want to pursue the field of public law?
AH: In law school I wanted to be a public defender, but I did a stint with Richard Winnie, who was the Oakland City Attorney. Over time, Richard and I became close and he became a mentor to me. Richard had a program for summer clerks that was intentionally designed to expose more junior people to local government. He had us do things like go on a ride along with police officers, go to Old Oakland and look at the development that was taking place, take a tour of the Port of Oakland, attend a City Council meeting and other kinds of things that local city attorneys do in every community. Those experiences stuck with me. After law school, I went to a big law firm, with hundreds of lawyers, and spent a couple of years representing Fortune 500 companies. I became disenchanted with that kind of work, which is perfectly good work…but for me does not compare to actually being involved in government where things affecting local communities happen every day, you’re helping people and there’s action occurring. Richard put me in touch with Louise in 1987, and I served for nine years in her administration in the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office. I would attribute the trajectory of my career to Richard, who was a civic-minded, local government advocate and a good guy. I think about him almost every day.
What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of your career?
AH: If you look at some of the projects that we’ve worked on, one project that stands out in particular was a very long jury trial brought by command staff members in the Richmond Police Department against the Police Chief Chris Magnus. The Chief, a very progressive, gay Midwesterner, found himself unfairly accused of discrimination. After a four-month jury trial and five years of litigation, we won outright. Since that time, the Chief has gone on to become the Chief in Tucson, Arizona, and a national figure. That case would have ended his career if it went the other way. It’s gratifying to be on the right side, prevail and help someone who’s really a good person and dedicated to improving police departments through innovative programs.
What are some challenges and new developments coming up in the field of public law?
AH: In my niche of labor and employment, having a state legislature and governor who are extremely pro-labor means laws are being enacted every day that make it difficult for public employers to make changes that could impact labor. At some point, it’s a little unfair to have stacked the deck so significantly against public agencies who are working hard to make ends meet and preserve public services. I think it will continue to go that direction, which makes our jobs more challenging. Every year, something new creates a wrinkle or condition or change to the landscape. That creates more challenges and more work as we go forward.
In the face of these challenges, how do you think RPLG can leverage its competitive edge for city clients?
AH: We don’t back down from challenges; we’re solution-oriented. A lot of law firms give very conservative advice, which is easy. It’s easy to say, “No, you can’t do this or that.” Our objective is instead to say, “Let’s see how we can get you to where you want to be in a way that minimizes legal risk.” I think that is our competitive edge. It’s harder and requires more creativity. It is often more complex. And there’s a cost to that approach because it may result in a legal challenge—but we’re not shy about that when a client decides a legal fight is in the public’s best interest. I think our success record speaks for itself in terms of our ability to achieve results on behalf of our clients. That is a big advantage.