By Eric Heinz
As the city of San Clemente looks to reduce some of its legal costs, City Council on Sept. 4 approved a retainer fee agreement with its contracted legal firm, Best, Best & Krieger.
San Clemente city attorney Scott Smith said the idea behind this new agreement is to reduce the charges to the city to consolidate some of the workload that’s been undertaken by his law firm. Other city staff members or consulting experts will take on some of the tasks, which would then still be reviewed by the legal team when necessary.
“Some things are unpredictable, like a development application with environmental review, litigation is pretty erratic,” Smith said. “There’s certain work that’s going on all the time, and we could budget for that better.”
The city approved the three-year retainer and general council fee at the latest City Council meeting for $450,000 per fiscal year. That figure was calculated from two-thirds of the average retainer costs from the last three years.
“The general services used to be unlimited and our fees could be unlimited, and now they’re capped,” Smith said, adding the agreement includes stipulations for larger litigation.
Best, Best & Krieger has been tasked with filing and responding to major litigation for the last three years. The firm took on a lawsuit from Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in 2016 after the city re-zoned the land around the hospital after MemorialCare announced it would close. The city has also filed lawsuits against the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) regarding proposed toll roads. Other issues have included, but are not limited to, litigating with short-term rental units and behavioral health companies that ran boarding homes.
“Professional services might overlap,” Smith said, referring to the new agreement. “What we wanted to do is have the city and us make a conscious decision to push toward things performed by non-lawyers.”
The decision comes following the rising legal costs the city faced going forward. According to the city’s budget, total costs nearly doubled from the 2016 amount of about $880,000 to more than $1.5 million in 2017. Currently, there are still outstanding legal cases with which the city is involved.