Personal lawsuits poor use of city money
Feb 02, 2012 | 1045 views | 1 1 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
As city leaders decided last week to take over expenses incurred by Patterson’s redevelopment agency, it’s another stark reminder that we’re operating in difficult financial times.

In light of that reality, it’s maddening to look at $47,000 in recent receipts for legal fees that council members have racked up in response to last year’s Stanislaus County Civil Grand Jury Report that was critical of them.

The $37,000 that Councilman Dominic Farinha has incurred is particularly shocking. While it’s not clear how much of that money was spent on hiring public relations specialist Nathan Ballard to serve as a spokesman, not a dime of the city’s coffers should have gone toward that expense.

Ballard, who served as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s spokesman while he was mayor and represented former presidential candidate John Kerry, certainly must command a high salary, and there is no need for small-town council members to require a personal media representative, regardless of the situation.

Though Councilwoman Annette Smith has not incurred nearly as much money in legal fees, the public should not be left footing the bill for any portion of her lawsuit against Stanislaus County.

The City Council did not authorize any lawsuits against the county, but only approved legal expenses for defensive purposes. Smith’s decision to sue the county in response to grand jury report was personal, and the suit should be funded at her personal expense.

While it’s true that many of the grand jury’s allegations and recommendations were unfair and were based on seemingly biased accounts, the costs being incurred to defend council members are beyond the pale.

One would hope that the city’s legal counsel would try to prevent these types of expenses in the future. Regardless of whether the council members are legally allowed to have these costs covered, it’s a poor use of public funds at a time when the city is trying to make every dollar count.

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jlustgarten
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February 02, 2012
Couldn't agree more with the sentiment of this article. I spent more than a year working on the city's budget committee and trying to find ways in which the city could save money. We presented more than 20 recommendations to the city council, and virtually all of those recommendations were ultimately rejected by the city council.

I was floored after reading the article last week regarding the legal fees incurred to date. Those costs might be more reasonable if the law firms hired by Councilmembers Smith and Farinha had been retained early on in the grand jury investigation. But both firms were hired within a month of the grand jury report's release. What exactly could those firms have done in that short period of time to incur such high costs? And the retention of PR help for Councilman Farinha completely without merit. I certainly don't recall any major push of media/PR damage control. No press conferences, no releases, no statements, no spokesman being quoted in the paper on Farinha's behalf. All I remember is a single quote in the paper by the Councilman in the story about the report's release. So I have to ask, how much of that $37,000 actually went to the PR firm, what exactly did they do for the money, and why would anyone expect the city to pick up the cost for something like that?

As for Councilwoman Smith's legal costs, we (the city) better not be paying one dime for her lawsuit against the county. If her suit claims that her personal reputation and civil rights were in someway harmed (a highly questionable claim at best), then any legal costs should be incurred by her and her alone. It should also be noted that on the night that the Council approved the city's response to the report in September, Councilwoman Smith's attorney was there for the entire meeting (and presumably there prior to the council meeting for any last minute private sessions with his client). He sat there for the entire council meeting, presumably charging us taxpayers $350 an hour for his "services," and then proceeded to make comments about what a great job the city attorney did in putting together the response. Really? We paid for that?

I strongly urge the Irrigator to look into this issue much further. The community deserves much more detail in terms of what the city council originally authorized and what exactly the city is paying for. We also need to know why our city attorney wasn't more involved in monitoring these legal costs as they were being incurred. Councilmembers Smith and Farinha should prepare to repay the city for any and all legal costs that were not expressly authorized by the entire city council.

One last point to put this into perspective. It should be noted that the legal costs incurred by the city to date would have gone a long way toward adding a deputy to our city police force. Or a variety of other worthwhile community causes. Shameful.


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