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By Shawn Raymundo
The city council on Tuesday, Sept. 15, voted to move ahead with a potential audit of Best, Best & Krieger’s legal bills, which amounted to more than $8.4 million between Fiscal Years 2016 and 2020.
In a 3-1 decision, with acting Mayor Laura Ferguson dissenting, the council assembled a subcommittee comprising Councilmembers Kathy Ward and Gene James, who will lead the solicitation process in finding a consultant interested in assessing the city attorney’s costs.
The assessment, according to the city, is meant to “identify monies spent, achievements, and suitability of the billing amounts” from BB&K, which has handled the city’s legal representation since 2015.
The more than $8.4 million BB&K has charged the city over the past five fiscal years, the city noted, represents general and specialized services, which include “litigation and other non-routine legal services.”
In FY 2015-2016, the first year of the city’s contract, BB&K’s total bill was just shy of $1.8 million. The following year, legal costs amounted to more than $1.95 million, while FY 2018 and FY 2019’s bills came out to about $1.66 million and $1.6 million, respectively. This past fiscal year, FY 2020, the city was charged just a little over $1.4 million.
A San Clemente Times review of a previous city staff report on legal costs, conducted this past February, found that in FY 2019, the city spent nearly $2.46 million in total legal-related costs, mostly representing litigation and legal services and experts related to the Transportation Corridor Agencies and hospitals.
Acting City Manager Erik Sund on Tuesday explained to the council that the legal costs outlined in the report for the most recent meeting didn’t include “larger ticket consultants that go through BB&K.”
“Our legal budget not only funds BB&K, but also funds other things that are legally related as it relates to consultants and subject matter experts, and so forth,” Sund said. “These costs are more or less the true costs expressed by BB&K.”
As part of Tuesday’s vote, the city will solicit proposals from three firms: Deloitte Legal Management Consulting, Management Partners and RSG.
Following the submission of their proposals, Ward and James will be tasked with evaluating the bids and make a recommendation for a contract award to the council.
“We can either go with an RFP or we can go down another road,” James said. “Maybe that other road is an appointment of a city attorney, and maybe we walk away from BB&K, and maybe we look at this and absolutely, positively, we find out, for quality of life purposes, BB&K has done a lot for us. But I think we need to do this.”
Sund said funding to pay for the consultant will likely come out of the city’s legal services budget.
Ferguson, who has staunchly advocated for an RFP to review alternative legal teams, was apprehensive about initiating the process at this time. She said the ideal time would have been this past February when the council held a workshop to review legal service costs.
Acknowledging her previous support for an RFP, she noted that it wasn’t budgeted for this fiscal year, the city is searching for a new city manager, and San Clemente is more than a month away from an election.
“I’m always up for looking at our legal bills. I mean, I have proposed at least three times since being on council a request for proposals, to see what else is out there in the market, to see what we can do different,” she said.
“With a new council on the horizon and a new city manager on the horizon, I just don’t think the time is right,” Ferguson added. “Later, yes, but not at the current time, also due to it not being budgeted.”
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.