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Mounting Legal Costs Prompt Closed Session
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Asked to appropriate another $80,000 to pay legal fees besides the $100,000 already allocated for this fiscal year, Riverbank City Council members on Nov. 14 authorized another $4,100 to cover some expenses but deferred allocating any more to a closed door discussion of litigation cases at the Nov. 28 meeting.

"I say refuse the $80,000 and rein in your legal costs. That's not your money. It's the taxpayers' money," resident and former council member Charles Neal said at the podium.

The city has retained outside legal counsel to assist with current active and pending litigation such as the Tuolumne County quarry project, said Director of Finance Marisela Hernandez in her memo to council, adding these items have been previously discussed during closed session and do not represent any other legal expenses that have not been authorized.

The city normally appropriates about $25,000 each year for legal expenses. During adoption of the 2011-2012 fiscal year final budget, staff recommended appropriation of $125,000 from general fund reserves for much heavier legal expenses than usual. A detailed listing of legal expenditures up to that point showed a total of $34,200 spent to date was presented to council, Hernandez said. Vice Mayor Richard O'Brien advised a reduction of $25,000 and with council's approval a final budget of $100,000 was authorized for the legal expenses account.

Since that date, staff has received additional legal billings of $69,898 thus resulting in a shortfall of $4,098 to meet current expenditures.

Hernandez listed the most costly of legal cases incurred through last September as $7,244 for a public employee discipline, dismissal/release case with a proposed budget of $6,000; $14,184 for a personnel discrimination matter budgeted at $8,000; $41,542 for the quarry project budgeted at $63,500; and $33,279 for the case to dismiss Jesse James White from the council.

"The city has now spent $33,279 in outside legal fees to remove a councilmember who has one year at the most of his term left to run," Neal commented.

He also criticized the city for suing Oakdale Irrigation District over a broken pipe that flooded the road in front of the firehouse when the blame probably lay with a company that was doing road repairs nearby, he said.

Liebert, Cassidy & Whitmore and D.L. White are the legal firms handling these cases.

"We hope to get a substantial amount back" on legal fees for the quarry project, said City Attorney Tom Hallinan Jr., adding "We're going back and forth on settlement figures and engineers' estimates."

The full cost of the quo warranto case against White for reportedly not being a registered voter at the time he ran for office is not part of the current budget. The bill was due in October but is not included in current legal cost figures, said Hernandez, noting attorneys have given only verbal estimates.

The quarry case is directed against Tuolumne County and the landowner of a proposed quarry near its border with Stanislaus County that would send carloads of rock by rail through Riverbank and probably block its road crossings for long periods.

Council members are due to discuss the legal costs at the Monday night meeting though whether they will take any action is unknown.