The city of Galt spends about $200,000 a year for legal services - and overspent its budget for each of the past two years - yet city officials refuse to disclose how even a penny of that money is spent.
The city's legal expenses have drawn increasing interest from some community members, with some fearing the city has given contracted City Attorney Ruthann Ziegler a virtual blank check.
Among the concerns:
- Despite a request by the News-Sentinel under the California Public Records Act, city officials refuse to disclose how money paid to Ziegler and other outside law firms is being spent. Legal experts say that withholding such information is a violation of the state's open records laws.
- The city projects being almost $60,000 over budget for legal services during for the 2001-02 fiscal year.
- Assessing legal costs for Galt is difficult at best because of the city's system of documenting costs through a maze of different departments and accounts.
"They're going out with a blank check, basically," said Rex Albright, who said he was speaking as a Galt resident and not as chief executive officer of the Galt District Chamber of Commerce.
While city officials refuse to disclose how much the city spends in legal fees for a particular topic, the City Council made an exception in June when it granted a request by Albright for an accounting of legal expenses associated with the preparation of a growth initiative for the November ballot. Records show that $8,456 were spent by the city to prepare and research the proposed ordinance.
Albright asserts that if it weren't for some bureaucratic hoops set up as early as January, he wouldn't have had to wait until June to acquire the information.
"I feel, as a resident who pays taxes, the time it took and the roadblocks it took to get the information (was unnecessary)," Albright said.
"I found it hard to get through the roadblocks," he added.
After several months of inquiries about legal fees, Albright was finally told he could ask the council to direct its staff to provide the information. He did just that on June 4.
Albright said he was turned down three times privately in the city clerk's office and twice during open council meetings before the council authorized its staff to disclose how much was spent on the growth initiative.
Albright said his interest in the city's legal expenditures began in January, when he made a general inquiry about how legal fees were being used. A short time later, he asked how much in legal fees was spent on acquiring 180 acres owned by the Sacramento Catholic Diocese.
"They wouldn't tell me. That made it a red flag to me," Albright said.
Albright emphasized that the roadblocks don't appear to be the fault of either the city clerk's office or the finance department.
"I hope the next time someone wants information, they can tell them how it can be done rather than how it can't," Albright said.
"Do they want to make it difficult for the average citizen to get information? It's public financing, not a private corporation," he said.
City officials have told interested residents and the News-Sentinel that disclosing time and money spent on a particular issue is not available under the California Public Records Act because it would violate the attorney/client privilege.
Ziegler describes her "client" as the Galt City Council, not the city itself, its residents or voters.
Galt Finance Director Inez Kiriu reiterated the attorney/client privilege in a memo to City Clerk Liz Aguire concerning the News-Sentinel's public records request.
"Descriptions of the expense which are presented within invoices has previously been advised by the city attorney as being considered attorney/client privileged information and should not be provided," according to Kiriu's memo.
However, Ziegler said Friday that the problem stems instead from a side issue - her billings to the city contain more detailed information than the public is privy to, such as a specific legal question posed by a particular councilman or staff member.
Ziegler also pointed to a provision of the California Public Records Act that exempts public agencies from making any disclosures that would require the agency to create a new document containing just the subject matter.
"You're asking the city to create a document that doesn't exist," she told the News-Sentinel.
Jim Ewert, an attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, and Terry Francke, an attorney for the California First Amendment Coalition, agree that the city can't be forced to create new documents, but they maintain that topics covered in attorney billings are public record.
The city has a duty under the Public Records Act, Ewert said, to "redact" by deleting or blacking out the portions that are legally private information.
Ewert also disagrees with Ziegler's claim that inquiries by city officials constitute attorney/client privilege.
For example, Ewert said, inquiries about two measures that will be on the November ballot in Galt are not exempt under attorney/client privilege.
The only information constituting attorney/client privilege is if the information would prejudice the city's position in pending or anticipated litigation, Ewert and Francke both said.
"If the disclosure of the information doesn't jeopardize the city's position, it is not attorney/client privilege," Ewert said.
Ziegler disagrees strongly, saying, "There is no statute that says that public entities have any less attorney/client privilege than a private citizen."
City Council members get statements on how many hours Ziegler and other attorneys spent on a particular topic and how much the city pays, said City Councilman Dan Pillsbury, but it takes hours of methodical compilation to figure it out.
Ziegler's law firm, Kronick, Moskovitz, Tiedemann and Girard, earns a flat $150 for each City Council and Planning Commission meeting attended - whether it is five minutes or five hours - up to five meetings per month. For all other work for Galt, she is paid $175 per hour, billed at every one-tenth of an hour. Ziegler does not charge for time or transportation between Galt and Sacramento, where the law firm is located.
Ziegler and outside attorneys have researched several controversial issues that have cost Galt taxpayers thousands of dollars. Among them:
- - Two ordinances that will be on the November ballot this year,
one on growth management and one regulating campaign contributions.
Both measures have considerable support and opposition alike.
Both measures, championed by Vice Mayor Tim Raboy, were placed on the ballot so that future City Councils couldn't repeal or change them.
The campaign contribution ordinance was placed on the ballot by a 3-2 vote of the council. Raboy presented the proposed growth initiative one time for City Council discussion, but later decided to collect signatures from registered voters rather than return it for a council vote to place it on the ballot.
- Condemnation of 180 acres owned by the Sacramento Catholic
Diocese on Twin Cities Road to expand the city's sewage disposal
capacity, a move that stirred the ire of some residents who
preferred other land on Twin Cities.
Some residents told the council earlier this year of possible land nearby that would be less expensive and available from a willing seller. Chamber leaders and other residents said that using the property it bought from the diocese for sewage disposal will diminish the attraction of adjacent property for possible commercial development.
- A lawsuit against the city by the Rural California Housing Corp., which was settled in January 2001. The issue was controversial, in part, because of what is presumed to be high legal costs in an issue over low-income housing that lasted several years.
Ziegler has also represented the city regarding development issues west of Galt and conducted a meeting at City Hall to explain the city's existing campaign contribution ordinance to City Council candidates and political action committees. City officials will not disclose how many hours Ziegler spent preparing for these meetings and how much she was paid.
The city's Finance Department provided the News-Sentinel copies of each check paid to Ziegler's law firm for the 2000-01 and 2001-02 fiscal years, but the second fiscal year includes bills up to May 25 only. The fiscal year ended June 30.
The city provided copies of checks payable to Ziegler's law firm, but not from any other attorney because of Kiriu's interpretation that the News-Sentinel's request was only for checks paid to Ziegler's law firm, not all the city's legal expenses.
Donna Fluty, of the city clerk's office, said Wednesday she hoped to have a response on whether checks issued to outside law firms would be available from the Finance Department next week.
The city had paid Ziegler's law firm $141,183.24, as of May 21, yet the city budget projects $250,000 - almost $60,000 over budget - for the just-completed fiscal year. It is not clear how much of the $250,000 budgeted constitutes payments to the city attorney and how much is budgeted to outside law firms.
For the previous fiscal year, the city budgeted $150,000, yet spent almost $60,000 more.
For the next two fiscal years, the city budget shows $200,000 per year for legal services, yet it doesn't include a penny for attorney fees and potential court costs for what could be the costly lawsuit against the city by the Sacramento Catholic Diocese.
Attorney fees to defend the lawsuit, which the diocese filed in April, will be paid from reserves in the sewer fund, Anderson said at a June 25 council meeting. The city has about $522,000 in its sewer reserve fund, which may someday have to be replenished by the city's general fund.
City Councilman Dan Pillsbury said he wants his council colleagues to review what he sees as a contradiction in city policies governing legal questions by individual council members.
Council members are allowed to ask Ziegler legal questions provided that it doesn't take more than two hours of her time, according to city policy. Any time beyond two hours must be approved by the full council or by the city manager.
However, Pillsbury noted, a city ordinance forbids Anderson from directing the city attorney. Only the council can do so, according to the ordinance. Pillsbury maintains that the ordinance takes precedence over the policy.
Pillsbury said he wants to make the ordinance and policy consistent, one way or the other.
"I think that's a great idea," Ziegler said. "If they want to change the rule, that's fine."
Mayor Bob Kraude didn't return calls to the News-Sentinel this week seeking his comments on the city's refusal to turn over full attorney payment records.
Comments about this story? Send mail to the News-Sentinel newsroom.
http://www.lodinews.com/forms/subscribe_enter.shtml" target= "_blank">SUBSCRIBE TO THE LODI NEWS-SENTINEL
To subscribe to the Lodi News-Sentinel, fill out our online form or call our Subscriber Services Department at (209) 333-1400.