Murrieta to scrutinize legal expenses
October 31, 2007
By ROCKY SALMON
MURRIETA - When the Murrieta City Council hired a San Diego firm to take over city attorney duties, it asked the firm to dig deep to help make any needed reforms in city policies or procedures.
In the first month of work, the firm used up almost 24 percent of its annual budget under the contract, spending $82,000.
City Finance Director Teri Ferro said she received the first invoice in September.
Tonight, the City Council will meet in closed session with Leslie Devaney and Prescilla Dugard from Stutz, Artiano, Shinoff & Holtz to get a breakdown of how the money was spent and to determine if there are services that the firm could delegate to city staff.
The council will also ask whether the firm is meeting with resistance from city staff members.
"I'm not surprised about the amount of money," said Mayor Doug McAllister, who asked for the cost breakdown.
"We have had a lot of tightening on procedures and policies, and frankly that takes time. And in the legal world time is money," McAllister said.
Devaney said the firm is doing everything it has been tasked by department heads to do, including independently reviewing issues and dealing with ordinances and resolutions.
"They had a lot of things they wanted us to review," she said via phone Monday.
At the mayor's request, Devaney said, the firm is keeping track of who is requesting what from it.
The city severed ties with longtime city attorney John Harper and hired the new firm in May.
Council members said they wanted to bring in a firm with more expertise and experience with cities...
Devaney is the firm's lead attorney and ran for San Diego chief attorney in 2004. She specializes in real estate, land-use and environmental law.
Dugard specializes in redevelopment law, zoning issues and developer agreements and negotiations.
Before Harper left, the city's annual budget for legal expenses was $200,000 to pay for Harper and an outside firm to handle court cases.
Harper charged $130 an hour for his work.
The city expects to pay $340,000 for the new firm, although city officials say that amount might go up.
The firm's contract calls for $15,000 a month and an additional $200 an hour for services not considered basic.
...Temecula budgets $760,000 a year for its legal services and has a city budget next year of $65.7 million. Murrieta's budget for the 2007-08 year is $42.8 million...
"The way the contract is written up, we have to pay a $15,000 retainer fee but we have obviously exceeded that," Ferro, the finance director, said.
...McAllister wants a breakdown of costs to determine if services can be handled differently and if there is resistance from city staff that is requiring attorneys to work longer hours...
Interim City Manager Ron Bradley said higher expenditures are not unusual when a different law firm begins work.
"We knew it would be above the average cost for the first several months," he said.
The lawyers have to familiarize themselves with issues, Bradley said.
He said all city employees who have to submit reports to the City Council are free to contact the law firm...
At the previous meeting, Councilman Rick Gibbs said the legal costs were a little more than he expected, and he wanted to see a breakdown...
Staff writer Tammy McCoy contributed to this report.