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City racking up legal bills

City racking up legal bills

The determination of Guadalupe officials to get municipal operations under control has forced the city to spend thousands of dollars more than planned on attorney fees.

From July 7 the start of the fiscal year 7 to January, the city has paid approximately ,55,600 for attorney services to the Fresno law firm Hargrove & Costanzo 7 ,10,000 more than budgeted. The figure does not include separate funds set aside for employee union negotiations and the Redevelopment Agency.

The city budgeted ,15,000 for anticipated contract negotiations with Service Employees International Union Local 620 and the Guadalupe Police Officers Association, and have stayed on target, so far spending ,10,000. The Redevelopment Agency budgeted ,12,000 and has paid approximately ,6,400.

Billing records show that the bulk of attorney Randy Risner/s time is spent doing research for the city. Not counting time spent at council meetings and traveling to and from Guadalupe, Risner can work anywhere from 36 hours to 69 hours per month, at ,130 an hour. Other tasks include drafting and reviewing contracts, meeting with city staff, and drafting resolutions and ordinances.

However, records show that a large chunk of the city/s legal bills accrue heavily on days that Risner attends City Council meetings. In August, Risner clocked 18 hours on council meetings, 30 hours in September, and about 11 hours in the months of October through January. For the most part, meeting days last anywhere from five to eight hours, but on days like Sept. 9, the city was charged ,1,950 for a 15-hour day, though a portion of that was spent on other work besides the meeting.

The council has passed resolutions intended to curb the length of meeting times. One resolution requires a meeting to end by 10 p.m., while another allows council members to vote on ending any discussion that gets too lengthy. Another resolution moved the sometimes-lengthy public comment session to the end of the meeting. However, as recently as Tuesday, the meeting ended after midnight, and the council had not covered all the items on the agenda.

"The council likes to keep discussing things," said Mayor Sam Arca.

Part of the mayor/s duty is to run council meetings, though he admits he gives a lot of leeway to the council and the audience during the discussions. He said sometimes lengthy discussions are necessary in order to make decisions, but believes that at times there is a lot of "political grandstanding" during meetings.

He added that meeting time would be cut if the council were given complete information and options to chose from on its agendas.

While lengthy meetings rack up the bills, some council members say the high bills also are a result of inquiries to the attorney by the mayor.

In October, Risner clocked 4.5 hours working on issues or inquiries brought up specifically by Arca, records show. In November Risner billed the city for 12 hours, and 11.20 hours in December.

As a result, the council discussed limiting the time individual council members spend consulting Risner on city related matters to an hour. The measure failed to win the needed three votes Tuesday.

"I think I have an obligation to work with all council members equally," said Risner.

The attorney drafted the ordinance at the request of some council members, but felt it would be unethical for him to tell a council member that their time is up and to ask the rest of the council permission for more time. He suggested that council members instead regulate themselves.

Councilmen Joe Talaugon and Lupe Alvarez voted in favor of the rule to save money.

"With me the bottom line is that we have a limited budget and have to save as much as we can," said Alvarez, though he admitted council meetings are too long.

He said the attorney/s responsibility is to help the city follow state law and help with city protocol and procedures, and he should not spend excessive time with individual council members. Talaugon said many of the items brought up by Arca are issues that were already addressed in council meetings.

However, Arca said it is his responsibility to bring up issues of concern to the attorney.

"I am morally and ethically bound to bring something to the attention of legal counsel," he said.

Some of the concerns he has brought up include rules for filing meeting minutes, hiring procedures, and how special meetings are called. He has previously said procedures are not being properly followed.

"I will continue to talk with him," he said.

Alvarez and Talaugon said they hope all council members will use the attorney/s time with caution, because the city cannot afford to be financially irresponsible.

"Let/s keep costs down," said Talaugon. "Especially with attorneys, they/re expensive."

* Staff writer Elizabeth Rodriguez can be reached at 347-4580 or by e-mail at erodriguez@pulitzer.net.

March 14, 2004

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