Langley goes over budget once again on attorney fees

LANGLEY — City hall has busted its budget for legal help this year.

With the city council’s recent approval of payment for the latest set of attorney bills — ones totaling $5,070 for June — and other attorney bills already paid, the city of Langley has spent $39,527 on legal services since January.

Problem is, the city council budgeted $35,000 for attorney costs for the entire year when it adopted the 2011 budget last December.

City Treasurer Debbie Mahler said Monday the council will need to amend its 2011 budget if general fund spending exceeds what was forecast.

Though expenditures in other line items are also higher than expected — such as county prosecutor services and public defender costs — the costs for legal fees are the most problematic area of the budget.

“Those are the expenditures we really need to watch for the rest of the year,” Mahler said.

“If the attorney fees continue to climb, then we will probably have to do a budget amendment,” she said.

The budget picture isn’t entirely bleak. General fund revenues were 2 percent higher than expected through June, and building permit fees and plan check fees have rebounded from last year and are also higher than forecast.

Expenditures have also been held in check, and are 6 percent lower than the six-month estimate that was set late last year.

Mahler said much of the city’s legal costs are due to the controversial Langley Passage housing project, and she said the city paid outside attorney Carol Morris more than $15,000 in 2011 alone for her assistance during the city’s review of the new subdivision.

The city has also spent $1,032 on legal work related to Proposition 1, the August ballot measure to change Langley’s model of government, Mahler said.

She also said the city has spent $5,001 on legal fees related to litigation.

The costs for dealing with lawsuits will continue to rise.

The council met Monday for an executive session on “pending litigation” with the city’s legal counsel.

Though the city did not specifically state the “pending litigation” to be reviewed, Langley is only facing one active lawsuit — one filed earlier this year in Island County Superior Court by a former public works employee who said he was fired because of his age.

City Attorney Grant Weed and Robert L. Christie, an attorney with Christie Law Group who will help defend the city as part of Langley’s membership in the risk management pool operated by the Association of Washington Cities, attended the  closed-door discussion.

Frank Sullivan, formerly the public works field supervisor for the city, filed a lawsuit against Langley in May. Sullivan, 67, claimed he was fired because of his age, and before launching his lawsuit, he submitted a $4.5 million damage claim against the city.

City officials have since declined to talk publicly about the lawsuit, as has Sullivan and his attorney, David A. Williams of Bellevue.

Williams also attended a portion of Monday’s executive session, as did Langley Public Works Director Challis Stringer, who notified Sullivan of his termination.

Langley’s attorneys have not filed a response to Sullivan’s lawsuit in court, but public records show the city’s legal counsel has spent many hours devoted to the case.

The city was served with the Sullivan lawsuit May 26. Legal bills from the law offices of Weed, Graafstra & Benson show that $684 was spent in May on litigation costs, with all but $90 spent for work on May 26-27.

Nearly five hours of legal work was billed to the city in May, with most spent on a review of the summons and complaint and telephone conferences with people who were not identified by the city. (Legal bills from Weed, Graafstra & Benson were reviewed by the city’s attorney before they were released to the Record, and employees at the law firm used a black marker to redact, or blot out, most of the details on the invoices before the documents were released publicly. The information was withheld, according to the city’s legal counsel, because it was attorney-client communication.)

Still, some details can be gleaned from the records.

In June, the city spent $2,678 on legal costs stemming from the lawsuit.

That work, conducted by Weed and fellow attorney Paul McMurray, involved reviewing emails and documents, plus at least six telephone conferences with Mayor Paul Samuelson about litigation. The legal assistance also included a meeting with unnamed officials, and the total cost for preparing for the June 10 meeting, travel to the meeting and related activities cost $1,260, according to attorney bills released by the city.

The June lawyer bills are also heavily redacted, but show a total of 15.4 hours of attorney time devoted to litigation.

The two-month total for litigation costs in May and June is $3,362.

Legal costs have been a sore spot for city officials in the past year, and the mayor has previously tried to minimize how much the city has been spending on legal assistance.

Langley expected to spend $12,108 on legal expenses in 2010, but ended up spending $60,205 — the highest level in a decade.

At a recent council meeting, Samuelson said the city overspent its budget on legal fees in 2010 because there were $31,000 in costs related to requests for public records.

A review of city attorney bills shows only $18,496 in fees related to public records requests, though an exact amount could not be determined given the information that was blacked out on the bills by the city’s legal counsel.

When pressed, Samuelson said he got the $31,000 figure from the city treasurer.

The city, however, has been unable to provide documentation supporting the mayor’s estimate.

Much of the $18,496 in costs last year were due to an extensive document request filed by former port candidate Ed Jenkins, who asked the city to provide copies of the mayor’s emails and other records during the controversy last year over the mayor’s vacation pay.

The costs added up quickly, however, because the city sent many routine emails to be reviewed by the city’s legal team at $160 per hour — including emails sent to the mayor that were created for a wide, public audience, such as agendas for county commissioner meetings and chamber newsletters.

When asked why the records weren’t first reviewed in-house, to limit the number of documents to be reviewed by the city attorney, the mayor grew defensive and said they were.

He also defended the withholding of information on the attorney bills that show precisely how the city is spending its money on legal fees, and accused the Record of manufacturing news that makes the city look bad.

“I trust the attorney’s judgement,” Samuelson said.

“My job is to protect the city and do what we need to do to move ourselves forward,” he said.

Interest in legal fees has been piqued in recent weeks, with Kathleen Waters, a candidate for the council, pressing the mayor and council to explain how they expect to pay for more legal work in the months to come, and Rolf Seitle, a vocal Prop. 1 supporter, requesting all copies of the city’s legal invoices for 2010 and 2011.

Seitle told the Record earlier that how much the city spends on legal fees is an issue for the Prop. 1 campaign, because it relates to how well the city is being managed.

Seitle also received bills that were largely blacked out, which he told the city “make it difficult or impossible to determine the purpose and subject of the expenditure of public funds.”

On July 25, the city rejected his appeal to have the full records released.

Samuelson has repeatedly downplayed how much the city is spending on legal fees.

In April, the mayor sent a memo to the city council that covered staffing costs, and the memo claimed the costs for the city attorney “have stayed steady over the past 10 years adjusted for 2010 dollars.”

The memo noted the city spent an average of $25,816 per year from 2000 to 2003; an average of $31,252 for the years 2004 through 2007; and an average of $27,037 for the years 2008 through 2010.

A review of the actual costs of attorney fees on a year-by-year basis, and not averages over three-year spans, shows legal fees hit a record high for the city in 2010, with $60,205 spent.

The previous high was in 2006, during former Mayor Neil Colburn’s administration, when the city racked up $51,595 in legal costs, largely due to the lawsuit over Fairgrounds Road.

With the exception of 2006 and 2010, legal fees never topped $30,000 in the past decade.

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