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Council balks at paying legal bill

The City Council this week voted to partially reimburse Councilman David Gordon, an optometrist, for legal fees he incurred determining whether his participation in employee insurance contract discussions — specifically regarding vision-care benefits — ran afoul of state law.

The council approved a partial reimbursement of $2,000. Gordon’s total legal bill in the matter was $21,893, he said.

In 2009 Gordon sought outside legal advice on the issue, removing himself from labor discussions. He voted the previous year to approve an agreement with the Burbank City Employee’s Assn. to provide vision insurance through Vision Service Plan, a provider he has accepted at his private practice for the past 30 years.

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According to Roman Porter, the FPPC’s executive director, Gordon would have been given the same advice if he had submitted his request as an individual, without the help of an attorney.

However, Gordon said the legal counsel was necessary due to the complexity and lack of precedent surrounding his issue.

“It is well-known that any elected official can ask for written advice from the FPPC,” said Gordon on Friday. “But it depends on the question: this was so complicated that I had to request assistance from legal counsel to ensure it was submitted correctly.”

 Gordon maintained that the threat of legal action forced him to act swiftly.

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“That quick action enabled me to obtain a quick ruling from the FPPC under the fair political practices act shielding me from further legal jeopardy,” he said.

Gordon stepped off the dias to make the request, addressing the council Tuesday as a member of the public. He noted the ruling will be of use to other medical-service professionals who also hold public office.

In order to grant the full reimbursement, the council needed to make a determination that the legal advice sought, without prior council approval, gave a direct and substantial public benefit to Burbank, according to the city attorney’s office.

A city report characterized the claim as a personal expense, given that Gordon was pursuing information about whether he violated the law. In addition, the report stated, the legal advice was regarding his personal financial interests and the effect his decisions as a councilman would have on them.

Gordon disagreed with this assertion.

“I sought outside legal assistance from an expert in municipal law because I needed prompt, accurate, dispassionate advice on the extent to which I could lawfully participate in decisions regarding labor agreements,” said Gordon in an e-mail Friday.

“When I say desperate people do desperate things, I think Dr. Gordon felt there was an attack on his character,” Councilman Gary Bric said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Bric later suggested paying for half of the legal fees Gordon incurred, pointing out that the fees amounted to nearly two years worth of his council salary.

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But Gordon’s colleagues also noted the bills submitted to the city lacked an hourly rate or descriptions of the services rendered.

“I think there is some public purpose at least in some preliminary advice to you to act as a council member and I would be willing to put a little bit of money toward that,” said Mayor Anja Reinke. “I wouldn’t be willing to put $10,000 on a bill when we don’t know what it is.”

According to Gordon, the fees were for legal research, phone conversations with Burbank and other government officials, letters, rulings and other legal consultation.

He said he would return to closed-session labor discussions when and if vision care benefits are segmented from the discussion to avoid future conflicts.
 
 


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