Tollway Officials, in Effort to Cut Legal Bills, Order Study of a Staff Attorney Job

Times Urban Affairs Writer

Moving to quiet controversy over seven-figure legal bills, officials of Orange County's tollway agencies Thursday ordered a study of the potential benefits of hiring a staff attorney.

The decision came after a partner in the politically influential law firm that has charged the agency $1.2 million in the last 2 1/2 years defended the quality and cost of its work.

The law firm, Nossaman, Guthner, Knox & Elliott, currently handles both general legal work and lobbying in Sacramento for the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency and the Eastern/Foothill Transportation Corridor Agency. The agencies are planning tollways in eastern and southern Orange County.

A joint five-member agency finance committee Thursday ordered Executive Director John Meyer to study and resolve the issue.

2 Proposals Rejected

The committee earlier rejected two separate proposals--one to hire a consultant to study the question, and another to split the agency's legal business into separate categories for general representation and lobbying.

The lobbying work of the Nossaman firm is praised as "superlative" in a report submitted to the committee by members Thomas Daly, an Anaheim councilman, and Robert A. Curtis, a Mission Viejo councilman. However, the report recommends that the corridor agencies explore ways to use friendly legislators and the legislative counsel's office in Sacramento for some of the work now done by Nossaman, Guthner.

The recommendations of Daly and Curtis echoed concerns raised by former tollway board member and former county Supervisor Bruce Nestande. Nestande, a memer of the California Transportation Commission, said Thursday that Nossaman, Guthner was never supposed to handle both general legal work and lobbying in Sacramento.

Nestande was a member of both corridor agency boards in 1986 when Nossaman, Guthner was first hired. Nestande said board members at that time agreed to seek separate contracts for general legal services and lobbying. But agency board members said they cannot recall such an agreement and that the work was never divided.

Minutes from discussions at agency meetings in 1986 show concerns on the part of some board members about problems that might arise by using a single law firm to research, draft and lobby for the same legislation.

Other Criticism

Some slow-growth advocates had also criticized the Nossaman firm's representing at that time both the tollway agency and an organization representing many of the developers who paid fees that went into the agency's coffers.

Nestande, citing his position with the state Transportation Commission, which has approved some state funding for the tollways, said Thursday that he still has concerns about the same law firm's researching and drafting legislation, and then working to secure its passage.

"There is no way to establish a comfort factor with the public at large that every single piece of work being done is essential if the same firm is researching, drafting and advocating the same legislation," Nestande said.

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