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Mayor, council clash over legal fees

In the end, Deaton loses her argument that the costs should be examined and in-house counsel considered.

March 12, 2014|By Katie Metzger

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.

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"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."

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