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Costa Mesa spends $10K more in legal fees

Union rep says promised savings for the city have never materialized. Righeimer counters that savings will come.

July 20, 2012|By Joseph Serna

The Costa Mesa city attorney's office exceeded its budget for the second year in a row, setting a new high-water mark for the city since it contracted with the Jones & Mayer law firm.

According to invoices from the Fullerton-based firm, Costa Mesa spent $827,229.77 in nonlitigation spending, surpassing last year's total of about $817,000 and exceeding the city attorney's budgeted $803,000 by about 3% for the 2011-12 fiscal year.

Since outsourcing its legal services to Jones & Mayer in the 2004-05 fiscal year, Costa Mesa had not exceeded $550,000 in annual expenses before these last two years, records show.

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The city has no inside counsel.

"When you look at it, since the beginning of this whole thing, the City Council has said we need to pursue outsourcing to save money, and none of these savings have materialized," Orange County Employees Assn. spokeswoman Jennifer Muir said.

But Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer said the savings will come.

"Clearly, we can lower all the costs in the city tomorrow just by throwing in the towel and handing the city control over to the employee groups," said Righeimer, who has spearheaded the effort to outsource multiple city services that began in 2011. "The fruit of that labor has not been realized yet … the changes have to be made now. Nobody said it wasn't going to cost money to get it done."

Councilwoman Wendy Leece disagreed.

"Spending this amount is irresponsible," she wrote in an email. "Had the city's policies and contracts with employees been followed, the excessive spending on attorneys [in] the past 18 months would have been unnecessary.

"I hope Costa Mesa taxpayers are outraged with this excess. I am."

The costs mirror what it cost Costa Mesa with in-house counsel, which ranged from $700,000 to $860,000, according to city data.

"Once outsourcing contracts are in place, once we decide what to outsource and what not to and we get through litigation, I expect it to drop to a normal amount of operating a city," Righeimer said. "I definitely see it going back down."

The city CEO's office rang up $183,342.30 in legal expenses this past fiscal year, about 22.1% of the city attorney's budget. Work for the City Council cost $126,507.35, or 15.2%, and the Police Department tapped the firm for $129,479.89 worth of work, or 15.6%.

The law firm charged $60,073.37 for code enforcement, or about 7% of the city attorney's budget. The rest of the money was scattered among other departments and projects, such as the city clerk's office, human resources and Homeless Task Force.

Jones & Mayer charged $568,505.24 in litigation costs, which comes out of the city's self-insurance fund. Costa Mesa appears to be under budget in that fund.

"I think these high, exorbitant fees are just another example of the huge cost of this City Council majority's bad priorities and their ideological, political agenda," Muir said. "And when you think of all they cut, you get a real idea of what this money could've been used to pay for."

joseph.serna@latimes.com

Twitter: @JosephSerna

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