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Questions Raised Over City’s Legal Representation PDF Print E-mail
Written by Alex Garcia Sun Contributing Writer   
Thursday, 04 October 2012 04:55

Council Members Surprised To Learn They Are Paying More Than One City Attorney

Money was again at the center of discussion at the San Fernando City Council meeting.Public employees attending the meeting on Monday, Oct.1, waited anxiously to hear how the council planned to solve the problem of the city's depleted coffers, and to hear whether there would be more layoffs to help make ends meet.

According to City Administrator Al Hernandez, San Fernando is facing a budget shortfall of more than $1 million, although he doesn't cite a specific figure.

And to the surprise of council members, Al Hernandez said the city is currently paying for two city attorneys from separate law firms.

Providing a bleak financial picture, Al Hernandez said the city's shortfall includes an outstanding debt of $789,000 for services provided by the Los Angeles City Fire Department.

In addition, the city currently owes $79,000 in outstanding payments to five different legal firms representing the city in a number of cases.

One of those firms – Richards Watson & Gershon – is the legal firm former City Attorney Mike Estrada works for. Estrada was replaced earlier this year with current City Attorney Maribel Medina.

None of the council members knew of the continued payments. "It makes no sense to have two city attorneys on payroll," Mayor Brenda Esqueda said.

When asked why the city had retained Richards Watson & Gershon for the past six months despite hiring a new city attorney, Al Hernandez responded that that firm had been involved in cases that are still ongoing, and that they had more knowledge and expertise in those matters.

However, Esqueda and Councilmember Maribel De La Torre insisted that the city had put out bids for a new city attorney seven months ago because they no longer wanted to deal with Richards Watson & Gershon, and expressed their dissatisfaction that the firm is still on the city's payroll.

Al Hernandez was told the city didn't want any more business dealings with that firm, although they are more familiar with the city's redevelopment and successor issues. He has maintained that loose ends needed to be tied up. A city hall source told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol there was a learning curve for Medina in that area.

In addition to Richards Watson & Gershon, the city also contracts with Alderman & Hilgers, Aleshire & Wynder, Liebert Cassidy Whitmore and Meyers Nave, the firm which employs current city attorney Medina. San Fernando currently owes Meyers Nave $17,000 in legal fees.

City Attorney Used Inappropriately

Councilmember Sylvia Ballin, meanwhile, pointed out she was not supportive of the hiring of the current firm. She said out of all the attorneys interviewed, Medina was the "most expensive and least experienced. I'm concerned because we are on a very limited budget."

Following the meeting, Ballin told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol that she is very concerned with the lack of checks and balances for attorney's fees, and has recently learned that council members have inappropriately been calling on Medina for their own personal legal matters, including consultation to De La Torre and former mayor Mario Hernandez when the pair, involved in a romantic relationship, got into a physical fight.

"There are charges for personal business associated with council members including an arrest warrant, recall matters and domestic violence and I have raised the issue to Al [Hernandez]," Ballin said.

"Council members should be billed personally for any professional services provided to them from the city attorney.

"The city attorney's function is to provide legal services for the city not personal services for the council members."

Ballin said Al Hernandez agreed with her position, and said that he was currently reviewing the invoices. She said he did not disclose the amount of money that the city attorney had billed the city for the council member's "personal consultation."

No Action Taken On Layoffs And Furloughs

City employees and residents attending Monday's meeting felt their time was wasted as the city's leaders tabled a decision over further layoffs and furloughs to address the municipality's ongoing financial crisis.

The city has already had a first round of layoffs.

After 45 minutes of "closed session" discussions, Esqueda announced that she, Mayor Pro Tem Antonio Lopez, and Al Hernandez "will meet with a negotiating team" to discuss how to proceed further.

That meeting was expected to occur today, Oct. 4.

The continued uncertainty over job cuts left many city employees clearly frustrated. They had stayed until the end of the meeting, waiting for the council to come out of closed session to learn what the future held for them.

"I missed Monday Night Football for this s--t," one worker was overheard saying as he left the council chambers.

Prior to the closed session, City Treasurer Margarita Solis provided a report about her duties and responsibilities of her office. Al Hernandez is looking at various budget areas to cut, including the treasurer's staff.

Solis noted her office handles more than $2 million in currency a year, as well as 20,000 checks in a "community that still prefers [to do business] with cash."

She also explained her office keeps an accurate monitoring of expenses and revenues for the municipality, and also handles all the coins from the city's parking meters.

"In a city where there is a large cash economy, an ethical and properly staffed department must be maintained," Ballin later told the San Fernando Sun/El Sol.

Charles Leone, a representative for SEIU Local 721, the union that speaks on behalf of city employees, also spoke out against the proposed cuts. He told the council it was violating contract rules and that employees were turning against each other.

"I'm disappointed. For the past six to eight weeks my membership has been pitted against each other in an effort to weaken the union," Leone said.

"Do not vote on additional layoffs tonight," Leone pleaded.

Julian Ruelas, part of the Recall Committee of San Fernando, argued against possible layoffs, stating the problem is due to "the lack of leadership in the city and financial mismanagement" during the past few years.

Without naming anyone, Ruelas said, "One of the council people is losing their house. How can you manage the city if you can't manage your own finances?"

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Last Updated on Thursday, 04 October 2012 04:57