Irvine council appoints interim city attorney

Having dismissed City Attorney Philip Kohn, a partner at Rutan & Tucker, the Irvine City Council voted Tuesday to take immediate action in filling his vacant seat.

The council voted 4 to 1 to appoint Richard Jones, owner of Fullerton-based municipal law firm Jones & Mayer, as interim city attorney. Councilwoman Beth Krom cast the sole dissenting vote.

The council fired Costa Mesa-based Rutan & Tucker, which represented Irvine since its 1971 incorporation, at a special meeting March 21. Kohn had been city attorney since 2006.

"It isn't a question of whether we can relieve them — we certainly can — but I remain troubled that we were unwilling, or those that supported this were unwilling, to even honor the 30-day notice that was called for in the contract and which would have allowed for a much more orderly transition," Krom said.

She voiced her concern about the fact that Jones & Mayer entered the fray during the city's labor negotiations but weren't vetted for city attorney duties.

Councilman Larry Agran agreed, drawing attention to Irvine's current involvement in a $1.4-billion negotiation regarding Orange County Great Park redevelopment funds, as well as entitlement discussions with FivePoint Communities.

"When you summarily terminate a law firm that is engaged in highly complex and important matters without a Plan B and Plan C and opportunities to implement these things on a smooth basis and without cause, you're engaged in a political action, not really an action calculated to provide quality services for the city," he said.

In response, Mayor Pro Tem Jeffrey Lalloway mentioned last week's closed session during which Rutan & Tucker's performance was evaluated and members were split 3 to 2 about axing the firm's contract, which was scheduled to expire next year. The council didn't give a reason for ending the contract.

Lalloway said that during his 24-year tenure as an attorney, he too has been fired. He also noted that nearby Orange County cities like Anaheim and Santa Ana are in the process of replacing their city attorneys.

"It happens, this is business," he said. "This is not personal. ... We don't need the faux outrage."

Rutan & Tucker generally charged $190 per hour and had not altered its rates in nearly eight years. Hourly fees were also set at $250 or $300 for legal representation having to do with the Great Park, depending on the nature of the work, $225 for litigation and $140 for paralegals and legal assistants.

Jones & Mayer's fee structure will be the same, although paralegal services will be $30 less an hour.

According to Councilwoman Christina Shea, it's time to cast a wider net in terms of law options available to the city.

"It's been 40 years. We've had the same law firm and in many ways they've been good and in other ways, I've had concerns," she said. "But I think it is important after 40 years to do an RFP [request for proposal] and go out there."

Shea also objected to tapping additional attorneys, based on specific issues that cropped up — all while also paying for Rutan & Tucker's services.

Agran then responded to Lalloway's earlier comments about the closed session.

"I just am not going to allow to have lingering out there the notion that somehow behind closed doors, something lurid, something terrible about Rutan & Tucker was discussed — absolutely not," he said.

Kohn, who was informed about the special session one day prior, said, "The meeting notice and agenda description did not make reference to a possible termination decision." He learned the news when the council announced its decision after the meeting.

Proud to have maintained a long-lasting relationship with Irvine, Kohn said Wednesday, "Our foremost priority has been and continues to be to that the city's legal affairs be kept in order and that no harm or prejudice in any way come to the city's interests while the transition goes forward."

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