By SHELLY WILKISON
Disregarding warnings they were violating state law, the majority of the Liberty Hill City Council faced down angry opposition Monday to oust the City’s law firm.
But two days after the decision was made as city officials were meeting with the newly-hired attorney, Alan Bojorquez told The Independent that the vote taken this week failed to pass by the required number of votes. He said he still considers himself to be the City Attorney “because the motion failed to pass.”
Over the objections of Mayor Pro Tem Connie Fuller and Councilman Wendell McLeod, Councilmembers Vicki Brewer, Liz Rundzieher and Elizabeth Branigan cast the deciding votes to terminate a contract with the Bojorquez Law Firm and hire Russell & Rodriguez.
Bojorquez, who was recovering from a pre-scheduled surgery the day the vote was taken, said Wednesday that the law requires four of five council members to vote in favor of the dismissal, which he said was without cause.
During Monday’s special called meeting, Mrs. Brewer and Mrs. Fuller disagreed on the application of two-thirds as required in the law. The Mayor is not eligible to vote except to break a tie.
“So that’s 3.3 votes, that rounds down to three,” argued Mrs. Brewer.
Mrs. Fuller said the .3 of a person is a fourth person.
In the end, Ms. Branigan was the deciding vote. However, just seven days earlier, she voted to retain the Bojorquez firm claiming the City needed some continuity as it continued to work through important water and wastewater issues. Because of her vote, the attempt to fire the firm last week failed.
Ms. Branigan told The Independent that after she learned a water agreement had been reached with the City of Leander, she felt more comfortable moving on.
“The previous week, I thought we had too many balls in the air,” she said. “But upon completion of that agreement, we were free to move on.
“I feel Russell & Rodriguez are considerably more cost effective and have demonstrated a commitment to the city. They are a better choice for us,” Ms. Branigan said.
“I don’t want to stay where my law firm will not be effective, but the Mayor Pro Tem wants us to stay, and we had the support of three council members just a week before,” Bojorquez said. “I don’t know yet what to do with that information.”
While unable to cast a vote, the move to change law firms was spearheaded by Mayor Jamie Williamson, who in recent months has questioned the legal advice provided by Assistant City Attorney Cathy Riedel. The Mayor has also complained about high attorney fees.
Bojorquez, the Austin firm’s principal attorney, said the Mayor’s determination to end the relationship with his firm was not based on wrongdoing by attorneys.
“I don’t even know what her issues are,” he said Wednesday, adding that he has yet to receive a return phone call from the Mayor from last Friday.
He said he believes his firm was fired as payback for not helping “her keep the City Council from hiring Greg (Boatright as interim city manager),” he wrote in an email to Mrs. Fuller, which she read in public Monday.
“After Cathy (Riedel) and I supported the Council’s authority to hire Greg, and the Council’s authority to limit Jamie’s mayoral power, she added us to her Hit List,” he wrote. “The Hit List is long. First she ran off Mike Crain, then used her office to try to get rid of Wendell (McLeod), Frank (Spinosa) and Clyde (Davis), and prevent Greg’s appointment. Now it’s me and Cathy she’s after. Who’s next?
“The Mayor’s history of trying to get rid of those who disagree with her is well-documented,” stated Bojorquez.
After the meeting, the Mayor said she has no hidden agenda. She said the action taken against Bojorquez and Mrs. Riedel was not punitive as Bojorquez suggested. However, she did not dismiss the opposition’s claim after the vote that Boatright’s contract might not be renewed.
“Well, his contract is up in September and I have yet to see where the money is going to come from to continue paying him,” the Mayor said.
Over the strong objections of Mayor Williamson and Mrs. Brewer, the Council hired Boatright in May to serve as interim manager and director of the Economic Development Corp. He is paid $5,000 per month from EDC funds and his contract expires in September. Councilmembers McLeod, Mrs. Fuller and former member Sammy Pruett cast the supporting votes in May. At the same meeting, officials voted to limit the Mayor’s power. Pruett did not seek re-election and voters elected Ms. Branigan.
“We serve at the will of the Council,” Bojorquez said, defending the actions of the firm in following Council directives regarding Boatright and the Mayor’s authority.
Although there was no mention of a possible legal violation when the Council first voted July 8 on the issue, Mrs. Fuller suggested this week that state law requires that in the absence of just cause for termination, two-thirds of the elected council members must vote for a resolution declaring “lack of confidence” in order to remove the attorney, who is considered a municipal officer.
“Are you, Mayor, going to obey the law as stated, or are you going to follow your own law?” asked Mrs. Fuller. “This is total disregard for the law, and I will be investigating what actions we can take now.”
While on June 24, the Council met behind closed doors with Bojorquez and Mrs. Riedel for the stated purpose of an “evaluation of contract”, Bojorquez said it was not a “real performance evaluation. If we are fired at this point, it will be without me or my team ever having had a thorough performance evaluation from the City Council.”
After the meeting, Mrs. Brewer told The Independent she was not concerned about allegations that the Council had violated state law when they voted to fire Bojorquez.
“Alan himself told us in the past that ‘the city council can do anything you want if you can convince three people to do it,’” she said. “This law was presented as we were about to sit down tonight.”
Mrs. Riedel was present Monday, but the Mayor would not allow her to address the accusations made against her or the firm. After the meeting, the Mayor said she did not allow Mrs. Riedel to speak because Bojorquez had already had his opportunity to defend the firm in executive session.
“You sat through executive session with Alan Bojorquez when I explained the off-the-cuff legal opinions, when I explained the billing and when I explained what I believe as potential questionable actions and unethical arguments in municipal court,” the Mayor told Mrs. Fuller. “I have to question how many off-the-cuff opinions I got and made decisions based on. I don’t believe Russell & Rodriguez will give off-the-cuff opinions. I don’t think Liberty Hill is in a position to have attorneys give off-the-cuff legal opinions.”
The Mayor added that legal costs submitted to the City for payment have averaged $7,700 per month — expenses that have put the city well above 100 percent of the its current budget for legal services.
“You (the Mayor) and Vicki Brewer caused most of the expenses from the attorney,” said McLeod.
Mayor Williamson quickly rebutted that attorney fees have increased since Mrs. Fuller was appointed to the Council last spring and since Boatright was named interim manager.
Bojorquez said his firm’s hourly rates are “as good as or lower than competing firms. All of our legal bills detail exactly what we did, exactly how long it took, and for whom we did the work.”
In the new agreement with Russell & Rodriguez, the City will be billed a flat rate of $4,000 per month for up to 25 hours of attorney/paralegal time and $175 per hour for attorney time and $70 per hour for paralegal time beyond the 25 hours. Rodriguez will also serve as munipcal prosecutor, for which the City will pay $150 per hour. When it comes to matters involving litigation, environmental and utility issues, attorney time is billed at $235 per hour.
By comparison, according to the current engagement letter with Bojorquez, attorneys charged rates ranging from $165 to $185 per hour. And those rates increased by as much as 10 percent per hour based on the subject matter.
“We’re going from a law firm (with many resources) to just one person,” said McLeod. “It’s just Art (Rodriguez). I think that’s going backwards. We finally started moving ahead. If you fire Alan we’ll lose the comprehensive plan, no telling where our water contract will go to. You two new people (Ms. Branigan and Mrs. Rundzieher) need to think about what you’re doing.”
Mrs. Riedel said because last week’s council vote was to retain her firm, she was surprised by the turn of events Monday.
“But why would we want to stay as their law firm when they won’t follow our legal advice. I thought we had the support, but the Mayor has the benefit of working on people 24/7,” Mrs. Riedel said.
“My decision had nothing to do with what has happened in the last 60-90 days,” said Mrs. Brewer. “It has to do with the money the City is spending and I have lost confidence in the law firm.”
“If someone doesn’t like our answers, that’s one thing,” Bojorquez said. “But they are changing the players when they don’t get the answers they want.”
The Bojorquez firm, which has represented the City’s legal interests for the past year, was directed Monday to turn over all documents to the new firm by July 22.
Bojorquez said Wednesday that considering that the motion taken to fire his firm did not pass with four votes, he is still hoping to work things out with the Mayor and Council. He said the firm will likely not meet the July 22 deadline given. He said he is not required to release any documents to another firm, and added that when the city’s business transitioned to his firm from Russell & Rodriguez one year ago, he did not receive all that was requested in a timely way.
Russell & Rodriguez represented the City of Liberty Hill for 12 years when the Council voted unanimously to replace it with Bojorquez in 2012. At that time, Mrs. Brewer and the Mayor, who has no vote except to break a tie, were among the council members who supported the termination of Russell & Rodriguez. Bojorquez said he was “recruited” for the job by Mayor Williamson.