Mayor, council clash over legal fees

The Seal Beach City Council debated Monday whether it makes sense to continue outsourcing legal services or hire in-house counsel.

Mayor Ellery Deaton said she would like staff to conduct a financial analysis of the city's current legal representation and compare it to that of other cities. But after lengthy discussion, the mayor couldn't sway fellow council members to her way of thinking.

Seal Beach retains law firm Richards, Watson & Gershon of Los Angeles. An attorney from the firm, Quinn Barrow, has office hours at City Hall on Mondays.

"We pay him $200,000 and get him one day a week," Deaton said after the meeting. "I think we could hire a full-time attorney for that."

Councilmen Gary Miller, David Sloan, Gordon Shanks and Michael Levitt disagreed with Deaton, saying the cost seems reasonable.

Miller added that it would be a drain on City Manager Jill Ingram's time and resources to look into the cost of legal services.

After a lengthy discussion, Deaton, who called herself a "lone ranger," was overruled, and the idea was tabled.

Miller said he reviewed an agenda item from Oct. 25, 2005, that detailed a two-month study on the in-house attorney costs and felt that it wouldn't be cost-effective to do a similar study again.

Four studied cities — Costa Mesa, Westminster, Huntington Beach and Orange — employed in-house attorneys at the time, though the former two have since switched to using outside attorneys, Miller said.

"We don't think that legal fees are exceeding at this point in time," Miller said. "A two-month effort is a lot of effort."

Miller said he didn't want to see staff spend a lot of time on the issue, though he added that it could be raised again during budget talks.

"My concern is that it has been since 1972 that we have looked at getting an attorney," Deaton said. "To ignore looking at what different options we have for legal resources and legal services is not doing our due diligence."

Deaton said the city should review its legal fees annually.

Shanks said the discussion gives the public the idea that the council hasn't looked into the idea of hiring in-house counsel when it has done performance reviews of the city attorney.

"We really have pretty well proven that we're getting as good a bargain for our legal fees as we're going to get," Shanks said. "Anybody who's ever been sued, or goes to sue anybody, is always kind of upset. It [the bill] always seems kind of high."


Get the grease out

In other action, the council approved a recommendation by staff to amend the ordinance regarding grease interceptors at restaurants.

In an effort to reduce the incidents of sewer blocks and leaks, Seal Beach restaurants are required to install devices to prevent fats, oils and grease from entering the sewer system.

The council agreed to Public Works Director Sean Crumby's suggestion to enter into a new three-year $16,630 contract with Environmental Compliance Inspection Services to complete the necessary restaurant inspections.

Staff also asked the council to amend part of the ordinance to clarify when grease interceptors are required and when that requirement can be waived and to hold a public hearing to discuss changes to the program's fees for restaurants.


Containing the smoke

The council approved the second reading of a new requirement that smoke shops have conditional use permits to operate in commercial zones. It also defined "smoke shops" and "smoking lounges" for the city code.

A lounge is an establishment that allows customers to test products or smoke indoors, and a shop is described in the staff report as establishments involved in the sale or exchange of "electronic smoking devices, tobacco products, tobacco paraphernalia."

The city's five-month ban on e-cigarettes was lifted Feb. 10, when the council adopted an ordinance that would allow their regulation.



Seal Beach also discussed National Tsunami Preparedness Week, March 24 to 28, and honored two police officers who made several driving-under-the-influence arrests.

Deaton recognized Cpl. Mike Henderson, who helped the city prepare for what Deaton called "the flood that didn't come" by filling 500 sandbags.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving awarded police officers Nick Nicholas and Erin Enos for making 36 and 25 DUI arrests, respectively.

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