Costa Mesa will maintain the status quo in filling its city attorney position after council members decided against making any change Tuesday.
On a 3-2 vote, with members Katrina Foley and John Stephens opposed, the council opted to keep the system that’s been in place since 2004, in which Costa Mesa contracts with law firm Jones & Mayer for city attorney services.
Tom Duarte, a partner in the firm, has served as municipal counsel since 2011.
Such a system is not unique to Costa Mesa. Of the 34 cities in Orange County, 29 contract with a law firm to fill the city attorney role, according to Costa Mesa staff.
Mayor Pro Tem Allan Mansoor said making a switch now would be “very disruptive.”
“I just see this continuing pattern of cleaning house, and it has me very concerned,” Mansoor said, referring to the council’s decision last year to vacate appointments on the city planning, senior and parks and recreation commissions, which he opposed. “If we need better oversight on billing, if we need better oversight on how cases are managed [or] cost issues, I’m all for that and I’ll examine that. But I don’t think this is the right way to go about it. It’s certainly not the right time to go about it.”
Stephens favored continuing to use a contractor rather than creating an in-house city attorney’s office, but he said the council should put the position out to bid.
“They would have the opportunity to bid to retain their job,” Stephens said of Jones & Mayer, “but we’d be able to see what the alternatives are, and I believe the community deserves that type of oversight from the City Council.”
Stephens, who requested in January that the council examine the city attorney position, recited a laundry list of issues he’s had with the representation Costa Mesa has received in various cases.
He also pointed to instances of what he called “really bad lawyering,” such as court documents that weren’t filed on time or were submitted without required information.
Foley also supported putting the contract out to bid, saying she doesn’t believe Duarte and Jones & Mayer have been sufficiently proactive in providing advice and opinions to help the city with legal issues.
Instead, she said, research and analysis have at times fallen to her and Stephens, both of whom are lawyers.
“That is not meeting my expectation of what I would expect from our city attorney,” Foley said. “It’s not meeting the expectation that people would expect from any lawyer.”
Duarte and Stephens disagreed at the time on whether the council could take that action.
“I think some of this stems from some kind of vindictiveness because of what happened with switching out the mayor ... so I have a little concern that all of a sudden this was brought up,” local resident Beth Refakes said Tuesday.
Stephens acknowledged that he was disappointed with how the mayoral reassignment was handled but said he’s “way, way over it.”
“I have no animosity toward Mr. Duarte — I like him personally,” Stephens said. “I have no animosity toward any Jones & Mayer attorneys. I like them, so this is not personal. It’s business.”