Following the state attorney general's denial again last month to represent the Orange County Fairgrounds, discussions continued Thursday morning regarding the organization's pending legal bills.
Since early 2010, the state-owned fairgrounds has paid about $862,000 to Manatt, Phelps and Phillips — a Los Angeles firm with an office in Costa Mesa — since the December 2009 loss of representation by the attorney general, who represents most state agencies.
In a March 27 letter, Senior Assistant Attorney General Robert W. Byrne wrote to O.C. Fair & Event Center officials that the office cannot provide counsel to the fairgrounds until the conclusion of the Orange County district attorney's potential investigation into the failed 2010 attempt to sell the Costa Mesa property to private investors.
But while critics on Thursday called the legal spending excessive and claimed difficulty in acquiring public records, board members praised the firm's work as interim counsel.
Reggie Mundekis, a member of the Orange County Fairgrounds Preservation Society, said she wanted more review of Manatt's bills and potentially a "lower-cost alternative" on legal services.
She called the bills excessive, particularly in the midst of increasing prices for vendors, rent, tickets and parking.
While calling the tab, "very significant," attorney Roger Grable of Manatt said his firm doesn't "do any work that we're not asked to do ... but to take that out of context, without understanding the need and the issues that were involved, is really unfair."
Grable said he welcomes management review and would sit down with board members to explain the billings.
"I, as a board member, have a lot of confidence in the service you provide," said Fair Board Chairman Doug La Belle.
Fair Board Director Nick Berardino, who has used Manatt's services, urged the board not to change lawyers in the midst of a "messy legal situation." Doing so, he warned, could likely be more expensive than retaining the firm.
"I'm not comfortable changing lawyers midstream while we have a bunch of other things going on ... they're good lawyers, and that's what you have to pay," he said.
Director Stan Tkaczyk asked for a comparison of Manatt's billings to the attorney general's — to which Preservation Society member Theresa Sears replied that using the attorney general cost less than $100,000 annually.
Sears served on the Fair Sale Review Committee, whose report was submitted to the Orange County district attorney's office in March for further review, and potential criminal investigation, over the failed fairgrounds sale.
In an effort to address the costs, the board appointed Director Ashleigh Aitken, an attorney and former federal prosecutor, to regularly review Manatt's legal billings in the future. Speaking to the board and Grable, she agreed with her colleagues about Grable and his firm.
"I don't appreciate and don't agree with any type of slanderous comments that you are, in any way, unethical ... you have my complete confidence," Aitken said.
The Fair Board also unanimously voted — with directors Joyce Tucker, Ali Jahangiri and Dave Ellis absent — to develop a new organizational needs assessment for the Fair & Event Center.
Fair officials hope the assessment will help identify both strengths and needs within the organization.
A 4.5% increase in attendance for the annual Youth Expo was also reported, as was a 98% survey result calling the event "good or excellent."