Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from its original version published on Monday afternoon, March 20, to reflect the City Council’s vote to approve the city’s contract with Burke, Williams, Sorenson LLP for legal services.
After eight years of receiving legal services from Best, Best & Krieger, the San Clemente City Council unanimously voted to approve a contract with a new provider at its meeting on Tuesday night, March 21.
Burke, Williams, Sorenson LLP (BWS) emerged from nine bidders—including BB&K—as the lead candidate. Elizabeth Mitchell is set to serve in the role of city attorney.
Mitchell has practiced law for more than 23 years and has served at varying levels within city attorney offices for six San Diego County cities. She has served as the assistant city attorney for Coronado and Solana Beach for more than six years.
Prior to the council’s vote, each councilmember thanked the outgoing City Attorney Scott Smith for his work for the city and fighting for it in situations involving the Transportation Corridor Agencies, sober living homes, and vacation rentals.
“Scott, you did amazing work,” said Councilmember Gene James. “There were evil entities trying to put a toll road through the middle of this town, and we stopped them cold … It was you that did it.”
Mayor Chris Duncan called Smith a “champion” for San Clemente.
“You can’t put a price tag on the work you’ve done, and how you’ve saved the city from these threats that we’ve faced,” he said.
The city issued a request for proposals after the council voted in October 2022 to seek alternative providers, with former Councilmember Laura Ferguson leading the charge along with current Mayor Pro Tem Steve Knoblock and Councilmember Gene James.
Over the course of BB&K’s contract with San Clemente, the firm has billed the city for at least $13 million, according to the Management Partners’ June 2021 Assessment of Legal Services Report and BB&K’s Fiscal Year End Reconciliation Reports.
Based on its bid in the city’s request for proposals, BB&K proposed three payment options, comprising a modified broad retainer, hourly payments, and a hybrid, council-focused retainer.
Under the first method, the city would have looked to pay a monthly retainer of $42,323 for general counsel services in addition to a $282-hourly rate for attorneys and $170-hourly rate for paralegals, clerks, analysts and consultants to perform non-retainer general counsel services.
Each hour of Public Records Act (PRA) work would have cost $217, and special counsel services would have cost $355 an hour for attorneys and $180 an hour for lower-tiered workers.
For strictly hourly work, attorneys would have been paid $275 for general counsel and non-retainer general counsel services; $217 for PRA work; and $355 for special counsel services.
Paralegals, clerks, analysts, and consultants would have been paid $170 for general counsel and non-retainer general counsel services; $217 for PRA work; and $181 for special counsel services. Private rates would also have been paid for applicant-initiated reimbursable services.
The final council-focused retainer would have charged the city $9,800 monthly for attendance before, during, and after council meetings, responding to councilmember inquiries, as well as briefings and debriefings. The firm included reasoning for the alternative system in its proposal.
“With discipline on staff requests and the City’s filling of its current non-attorney vacancies, this alternative could reduce (San Clemente’s) legal costs quite significantly,” BB&K said in its proposal. “(In other words, the work of planners, engineers, clerks, and finance staff have considerable overlap with our services and tend to go down when clients have these positions fully filled.)”
BWS presented the city with just two options for compensation, a retainer with hourly fees or only hourly fees.
For the former, the city would pay $12,750 monthly for the first 50 hours of general city services, and $285 for additional hours of general city services; $295 hourly for tort litigation and code enforcement work; $325 for special legal services done by partners; $285 for special legal services completed by associates; $450 for third party reimbursable services; and $165 for paralegal work.
Under the latter option, BWS would charge San Clemente $265 hourly for general city services; $275 for tort litigation and code enforcement; $305 for partners’ special legal services; and $275 for that of associates; $450 for third-party reimbursable services; and $165 for paralegal work.
Ultimately, the council favored BWS’ hourly compensation model.
The council met in closed session to discuss the matter starting in February 2023, including a special meeting on Feb. 16.
BB&K withdrew from consideration on March 14 via a letter to the city, and “expressed a willingness” to help BWS with the immediate transition and acclimating the new firm to San Clemente’s chief legal topics, according to the agenda report.
BWS will begin its services on April 1.