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Charter filing mishap costs city in legal fees

Costa Mesa's effort, amounting to at least $50,000, is called a waste of taxpayer money by some. Righeimer contends that it's in the best interest of residents.

July 03, 2012|By Lauren Williams

The city of Costa Mesa spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees in its failed attempt to place a charter initiative on the June ballot, records show.

Jones Day, the law firm retained by the City Council, invoiced the city for $50,021 through March 31 at a rate of $495 an hour.

That may not be the total spent on the effort, however. The city may receive other invoices from the firm on charter litigation in the future, said Assistant Finance Director Colleen O'Donoghue.

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The City Council took the issue to court after a filing deadline was missed.

The city needed to submit the charter initiative to the Orange County Registrar of Voters by March 9 to place it on the June 5 primary ballot, but City Clerk Julie Folcik emailed the initiative March 10 — one day late — and then submitted a copy in person March 12.

An Orange County Superior Court judge denied the June ballot placement, ruling in March that the city would not suffer irreparable harm if the ballot measure didn't go before voters in June.

In court filings, the city alleged that it was an accidental mishap stemming from Folcik's misunderstanding of the deadline, although there are emails between Folcik pertaining to the deadline.

The city manager placed Folcik on paid leave in April, pending an investigation, and has since named Brenda Green as interim city clerk.

The investigation into the missed deadline is close to wrapping up, according to city spokesman Bill Lobdell, although he declined further comment about the inquiry.

Some residents and activists who opposed the charter on the June ballot called the legal costs a waste of taxpayer dollars. They argued there was no harm in waiting to put the issue before voters in November.

"It doesn't sound like an unfair bill from the work I saw," said Costa Mesa attorney John Stephens, who joined Newport-Mesa Unified school board Trustee Katrina Foley, also an attorney, in intervening in the lawsuit. "But the case should have never been filed … It wasn't a good use of taxpayer money."

But Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer said what the city will save when it adopts the charter dwarfs any legal costs of getting the measure on the ballot.

"If we were able to get this on the ballot, it would have passed in June and the savings would have been a minimum of 10% … on prevailing wages for the road work that’s being started on the Eastside, approximately $670,000 in savings," Righeimer said. "It would have made it well worth it." 

He said suing to get the charter on the ballot was in the interest of residents.

"The argument is can one employee defeat all the citizens from voting on something because they, for whatever reason, didn't turn a document in?" he said.

Others, like Costa Mesans for Responsible Government President Robin Leffler, called the legal maneuvering cavalier and politically motivated.

"It's just out of control, and these guys have no trouble spending on lawsuits," she said.

lauren.williams@latimes.com

Twitter: @lawilliams30

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