Mayor: Added legal costs due to Council members’ calls to attorneys, lack of meeting preparation

By SHELLY WILKISON

With six months remaining in the fiscal year, the Liberty Hill City Council amended the City’s General Operating Fund budget last week to redirect monies for legal fees.

Mayor Jamie Williamson said the City has already spent 67 percent of its budgeted $40,500 for legal expenses. While she proposed the Council move $15,000 from another General Fund line item to pay for future legal costs, she could not say definitively whether the allocation would be sufficient.

“It’s (expenses) gone up because of multiple calls to attorneys,” Mayor Williamson told The Independent. “I hope we won’t have to do another amendment, but it depends on who continues calling the attorney.”

While the City’s legal expenses are split among different accounts depending on the subject matter addressed by the law firm, general administrative issues account for much of the firm’s time.

According to documents obtained through an Open Records Request last month, the City spent $40,615 with the Bojorquez Law Firm of Austin from Oct. 1, 2012 (the beginning of the fiscal year) through Jan. 31, 2013. Of that amount, $17,380 was billed for issues relating to general administration. Administrative issues may include preparing for and attending council meetings, development of ordinances, code enforcement, land use, parks, and general consulting on policy questions.

Administrative issues also include personnel matters. Among those documented in records provided by the City was almost $2,000 billed for a personnel matter in October 2012 involving City Secretary Tammy Kirk. Related discussions involved council members’ access to city staff and facilities.

More than $1,700 was charged for discussions involving City Council member Byron Tippie, who was charged in January with a Class A misdemeanor. Discussions regarding Tippie also included legal references to filling council vacancies.

Records show members of the attorney firm bill the City for travel expenses to and from meetings and charge an hourly rate that varies.

According to an Engagement Letter approved by the Council in July, attorneys charge rates that range from $165 to $185 per hour. And those rates may increase by as much as 10 percent per hour based on the subject matter.

Preparing for and attending city council meetings ranged from  $490 to as much as $1,319.

The Council meets twice monthly, and most meetings include executive sessions for the purpose of consulting with attorneys on various issues. Closed sessions vary in length.

Additionally, the firm charges the City for mileage to attend meetings at the rate of $0.555 per mile. While the firm does not always bill for mileage, the distance typically traveled from the firm’s office on Hymeadow Drive in Austin is 40 miles.

The firm also charges the City for copies at $0.20 each and charges $1 per page to receive a fax.

Mayor Williamson, who was among a slate of candidates elected in May 2012 who believed the City spent too much money on lawyers and engineers, said she anticipated that legal expenses might be higher at first with a new firm. However, she said she would like to reach a point where an attorney’s presence is not required at every meeting.

“The attorneys need to know who we are, even though they deal mostly with me,” she said. “It’s been a time to get to know their style.”

She said reducing expenses for meeting attendance could happen sooner if some council members would prepare for meetings in advance.

“Instead of looking at the (meeting) packet and calling me, they call the attorney or throw out questions at the meeting,” she said, adding that a call to City Hall would not require additional expenses.

“Any council member can call the attorney any time because they represent all of us. I can’t stop them from doing that,” she said.

A review of the matters listed on the legal billing shows Council member Wendell McLeod’s questions of the firm cost the City $1,039 over about six hours of recorded time during the four months.

In the absence of a city administrator or manager, Mayor Williamson has been acting as chief executive officer and supervising the daily operations with assistance from Council member Vicki Brewer. Interaction with the Mayor and Mrs. Brewer on a number of administrative topics accounted for the majority of the firm’s communications with council members.

Mayor Williamson said in order to curb some legal expenses on administrative issues, she has started drafting all of the meeting agendas and ordinances and sending them to the law firm for review.

She said she also provides to council members all supporting documents on issues she adds to the meeting agendas. By law, meetings must be posted 72 hours in advance.

During the four-month period for which records were obtained by the newspaper, an additional $2,354 was billed for Municipal Court duties. The Court has $19,000 budgeted for legal services this fiscal year.

In recent months, Attorney Cathy Riedel has taken over the duties of city prosecutor and city attorney from Alan Bojorquez. Mayor Williamson said she understood that the change from the firm’s chief counsel to Ms. Riedel was a decision made by the firm for convenience. Ms. Riedel lives in the Liberty Hill area and “does not always charge for mileage,” the Mayor said.

Ms. Riedel previously served as Liberty Hill’s Municipal Court Judge, but the City Council voted in May 2010 not to renew her contract.

Records show the law firm billed $887 to the City’s Economic Development Corp. from October 2012 through January 2013.

During the same time period, much of the firm’s time was spent on water and wastewater issues. The City has separate accounts for those transactions. The firm billed $19,623 for time spent on tasks related to public works, which included both water and sewer, and the newly-acquired wastewater treatment plant.

Despite the need to add more funds to the legal fee line item, Mayor Williamson said she believes the fees being charged to the City are fair.

“Based on the amount of information they have been asked to sort through, and the TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) issues, and the fact that the City only had the water and wastewater for a short time … I think the fees are reasonable,” she said.

The Council voted in July 2012 to terminate the contract of the Georgetown-based law firm of Russell & Rodriguez, which had represented the City for more than a decade. Representatives from the firm did not attend council meetings unless requested.

Russell & Rodriguez charged a flat monthly fee of $3,250 for administrative issues, $140 per hour to serve as the prosecutor in Municipal Court, and $225 per hour when  dealing with water and wastewater projects. Records obtained by the newspaper did not show charges for mileage, copies and faxes.

The City’s legal work for August and September 2012 was performed by the Bojorquez firm, but was covered under the previous fiscal year’s budget, which was adopted by a previous city council.

Although expenses for August and September 2012 did not impact the need last week to amend the current year’s budget, records show the firm billed $6,942 for work performed during August and $11,871 for September.