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SEAL BEACH : City’s Law Firm Comes Under Fire

Residents have rained criticism on the Los Angeles law firm that serves as the city’s attorney and have requested that the City Council hire another firm to evaluate its legal services.

Mayor Frank Laszlo said Monday night that he will consult several attorneys on getting a second opinion on the firm’s handling of Mola Development-related lawsuits. The city is represented by the firm of Richards, Watson & Gershon.

Councilwoman Edna Wilson suggested tabling the item but her motion failed on a 3-2 vote. The majority of council members said they would discuss the issue again within the next month or so, but appeared to support the idea of a second opinion, if it would not cost too much.

Beverly Casares, one of the residents who proposed the idea, said cost should not be an issue, but city officials disagreed.

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“Fiscal impact is at issue,” City Manager Jerry L. Bankston said. “This is a policy question to be determined by the council.”

James Lia, a Seal Beach attorney, said he estimates that a review could be performed for as little as $1,000. He said he sees nothing unusual with a client requesting a review of an attorney’s billing and performance.

“I think the city can come up with $1,000, but I can’t see spending $30,000 or $40,000,” Laszlo said.

Controversy over Mola’s proposal for the Hellman Ranch property has torn the city apart for several years. Some residents say they think the law firm is not representing the city well.

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“What the issue is and what we don’t know is whether we’re being zealously defended or whether there is complicity between Mola and the city attorney,” said Sue Corbin. “We need to have someone review this. There is too much at stake here.”

The firm first defended the city against a successful Wetlands Restoration Society lawsuit that sought to invalidate the city’s housing element and approval of Mola’s plans to build 329 homes on 149 acres. The judge found in favor of some but not all of the society’s arguments, and both Mola and the Wetlands Restoration Society filed notice of appeal. An attorney from Richards, Watson & Gershon argued along with both sides in appellate court, prompting one judge to say he was not sure which side of the table the city was on.

The law firm is also defending the city and three council members in an $11-million lawsuit filed by Mola. Residents have criticized the firm for failing to win immunity for Laszlo and council members Gwen Forsythe and Marilyn Bruce Hastings.

City Atty. Quinn Barrow of Richards, Watson & Gershon has said the firm has been focusing more on its overall defense. The defense is the same in both instances and it does not cost more to defend the individuals along with the city, Barrow said. He declined to comment on the residents’ request for a second opinion, saying it would be inappropriate.

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