A group of Seal Beach residents this week called for the City Council to curtail spiraling attorney fees by hiring an in-house attorney or creating an elective city attorney post.
The city now contracts with the Los Angeles law firm of Richards, Watson & Gershon for its legal services.
Last year the city budgeted $168,000 for fees to the firm but ended up paying it more than $300,000. This year, the city has budgeted $235,000 for the firm. The city also has a liability attorney, a Police Department attorney and a redevelopment attorney.
"The city expenditures in legal fees were more than $500,000," said Seal Beach resident Beverly Casares. "I believe that for $200,000 we could get an attorney, an assistant, a legal secretary and a law library."
Bruce Stark said he favors an elective city attorney so the official would be accountable to the people.
"I've asked a number of times, how much money are we spending on attorney fees to defend against nickel-and-dime claims, and no one knows the answer," Stark said.
Ivan Stevenson, the city's liability attorney, has said repeatedly that disclosing the legal fees or settlement amounts for claims or lawsuits would weaken the city's defense position.
Casares and Sue Corbin criticized Richards, Watson & Gershon for "double dipping," or sending two or more attorneys to court when only one was necessary. For example, there were five representatives from Richards, Watson & Gershon at an appellate court hearing on the Wetlands Restoration Society appeal a couple of months ago.
"Certain large law firms have the reputation of sending more attorneys than are necessary," said City Atty. Quinn Barrow of Richards, Watson & Gershon. "We always make a decision as to what's appropriate and necessary and economics is one of the factors we consider."
Barrow said the firm billed the city only for two attorneys at that hearing. He said he also attended but did not bill the city because he was doing other work while in the courtroom. In addition, two summer law clerks attended the hearing but the city did not pay for their time, he said.
Council members said they would consider the matter but did not offer any opinions. But City Manager Jerry L. Bankston said it is generally more expensive for cities to use in-house attorneys because a law library must be maintained, and some matters still require outside specialists.