ROSEMEAD - The city attorney has so far charged the city nearly double the amount budgeted for legal fees.
Bonifacio Garcia and his law firm, Garcia, Calderon and Ruiz, have charged $276,000 for legal services from July through mid-March. The city's budget for the entire year is $162,000.
"It is just too high, and there is no excuse for it as far as I am concerned," Councilman Gary Taylor said. "His fees will have to be discussed at the budget review."
Garcia did not return calls for comment.
The City Council will discuss the 2008-09 budget at its June 10 meeting, City Manager Oliver Chi said. Staff will propose more than doubling the city attorney's budget, increasing it to $364,000, Chi said.
As the city prepares for next year's budget, some council members are concerned over the high fees that have trailed Garcia.
"I'm wondering whether they are charging us for their research," said Councilwoman Margaret Clark. "This is just outrageous because we are not facing very many lawsuits."
In addition to the $15,000 a month retainer fee and nearly $31,000 worth of work on two lawsuits, Garcia has charged the city nearly $10,000 in two months to examine alleged misconduct by Clark and Taylor.
Earlier this year, the council recommended that Taylor be investigated by the grand jury for allegedly releasing confidential information in public, and Clark is being referred to the Fair Political Practices Commission for sending
mailers that allegedly had misinformation.
"It is unfortunate to have these additional costs to the city," Councilwoman Polly Low said. "But (Garcia) is willing to reduce the costs to the city."
In April, the city reduced the amount budgeted per month to $20,000 from $30,000. The action came after the City Council tried to curb costs by putting a maximum on his fees, which reached as high as $58,000 in November.
The cap does not include "extraordinary circumstances" such as litigation, court proceedings or investigations.
"If you look at it, it is higher because of situations that we have had to deal with," Low said. "If it weren't for all the additional items, then the costs would be much lower."
Since Garcia was hired nearly one year ago, he has charged $395,000 for his services.
"In my opinion, (the cap) hasn't done anything to control the costs," Taylor said. "There are three council members that don't see anything wrong with what he does."
The city attorney known for his late - and high - billing habits resigned from his post as Rosemead's legal defender on March 19, reporter Rebecca Kimitch confirmed today.
Bonifacio Garcia was hired on April 3, 2007, the same day that the city was slapped with a lawsuit by a former city employee alleging that former Councilman John Nunez subjected her to sexual harassment. The lawsuit was later dropped and there was a settlement, and officials have said that Garcia's hiring date was just a coincidence that it fell on the same day the lawsuit was filed.
During the time that Garcia was employed, he charged the city more than double the amount it budgeted for legal fees. Garcia and Nunez worked together at the Garvey School District.
The City Council will consider hiring Joe Montes of Burke, Williams and Sorensen as the interim city attorney.
Rosemead's city attorney already $43,000 over his budget
By Jennifer McLain, Staff Writer
ROSEMEAD - The city attorney is over his legal budget by $43,000, with six months remaining in the billing cycle, records show.
Rosemead City Attorney Bonifacio Garcia of Garcia, Calderon and Ruiz has charged the city $205,000 since July, the start of the fiscal year. The legal budget for the firm's services in 2007-08 is nearly $162,000.
Garcia did not return calls.
"That is outrageous," said Councilwoman Margaret Clark. "If we are overbudget, we are going to dip into our reserves. This is the wrong time to be overspending on anything."
The City Council on Tuesday will discuss Garcia's billing practices. This is after some council members last month questioned why he had not submitted four months' worth of bills.
Since Garcia was hired nearly one year ago on the recommendation of Councilman John Nunez, the council has adjusted its policies and taken steps to lower the city attorney's bills, which reached as much as $58,000 in November.
"I find that (Garcia) gives us great and sound advice, but in terms of cost, obviously I am very concerned about the bills," said Mayor John Tran. "I've asked staff to closely monitor the bills."
Since Garcia was hired a year ago, he has charged $323,785 for his services.
"There was one month where a bill was $56,000," said Rosemead City Manager Oliver Chi. "That type of situation can't happen anymore."
The bills prompted the city to place a $30,000 cap effective September 2007.
The cap does not include "extraordinary circumstances" such as litigation, court proceedings or investigations.
Garcia's $205,000 in fees since July include work on a pending personnel lawsuit against the city, and a city legal dispute against Councilman Gary Taylor that was referred to the grand jury.
"During the last few months," Chi said, "we have taken on extraordinary circumstances, and there is an additional cost for those services."
Legal costs vary among San Gabriel Valley cities.
In Baldwin Park, home to more than 80,000 residents, city attorney fees range between $10,000 and $20,000 a month. Invoices show the city spent about $17,000 in November, $17,000 in October and $12,000 in December for work performed by former City Attorney Stephanie Scher.
In South El Monte, which has 21,400 residents, city attorney fees averaged $31,000 a month last year, records show.
In Rosemead, a city of nearly 53,000, Garcia's bills average $36,300 a month.
Officials said they expect to present the council with a balanced budget, but legal costs could be an obstacle.
"At some point, if we exceed the appropriated amount, a budget amendment has to be executed," Chi said. "This is one of these areas where we will have to bring back some sort of budget amendment to be able to continue to pay for this service."
Council asks for Garcia's legal bills
City attorney said to be four months behind
By Jennifer McLain, Staff Writer
ROSEMEAD - Officials are wondering why they haven't seen a bill from the city attorney since November.
Since April, legal fees from three separate law firms representing the city reached about $300,000, records show. Of that, $233,414 has gone to City Attorney Bonifacio Garcia.
Some elected officials are concerned about how high fees will spike because Garcia has only billed them from April through October.
"I want to find out why he is four months behind," Councilman Gary Taylor said, who called Garcia's billing habits, "very unusual," and alleges the city attorney is finding ways to milk the city.
Garcia did not return calls seeking comment.
The city hired Garcia, whose firm, Garcia, Calderon and Ruiz also represents the Garvey School District, on April 3. Since then, the city has seen legal fees that have been unmatched in previous years.
City Manager Oliver Chi expects the bills to be around $150,000, which is about $37,500 a month.
"Clearly something is wrong here," said Robert Stern, president for the Center for Governmental Studies. "Normally, if you do work, you submit bills."
Rosemead has budgeted legal fees at $265,000 for the 2007-08 fiscal year, and Chi expects the fees to exceed the budget. The projected cost for the city attorney costs in 2006-07 had been $159,735.
Attorney's fees were lower in the past, Mayor John Tran said, because city development was stagnant.
"Of course the legal fees will be higher than in the past, especially with the fact that the city is finally providing better services," Tran said.
Garcia's high bills prompted the city to place a cap on his contract, limiting him to $30,000 a month. The retainer does not include additional legal work such as lawsuits.
"Most of these are legal expenses which are an exception to his retainer," Taylor said. "He brings in these extra cases, and gets more money."
Among the cases are a lawsuit filed by a former employee Randy Haro, which cost $4,893 in October, the recommendation of Taylor to the Grand Jury over possible leaking of confidential material, which cost $7,370 in October, and a lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice against Rosemead, which cost $5,880 in September. The DOJ lawsuit preceded Garcia's arrival and deals with voting rights.
These are not attorney initiated causes that Garcia is taking up, Tran said.
"He takes direction from the council," he said.
The City Council also hired a separate law firm, Burke, Williams and Sorensen, to represent the city's redevelopment agency. Since Burke, Williams and Sorensen was hired in September as the city's redevelopment agency attorney, it has charged the city $28,315, or about $7,000 a month.
"Just because a number is budgeted, doesn't mean that we are held to that account," Tran said. "In the past, we have exceeded the budget."
GILROY -- Trustees awarded the school district's educational legal services to the firm of Garcia Calderon Ruiz, LLP of San Diego, at the Dec. 6 school board meeting.
After interviewing five firms, out of an original pool of nine, trustees narrowed the candidates down to two firms, Lozano Smith and Garcia Calderon Ruiz. Trustees Jaime Rosso and Denise Apuzzo conducted reference checks for both firms.
They presented the information they collected at the Dec. 6 board meeting and the seven trustees unanimously selected Garcia Calderon Ruiz.
Rosso contacted the chancellor for the San Jose Evergreen Community College District, Rosa Perez, as a reference for Garcia Calderon Ruiz. Perez rated them highly and gave them a five out of five rating on proficiency in special education issues.
However, Apuzzo pointed to the Garcia Calderon Ruiz's "massive overbilling in the Sweetwater case" as a major concern. As the general counsel for the Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista, Garcia Calderon Ruiz charged the district more than $1 million in legal fees in one year.
The district reported that it spent 77 percent more on legal fees to the firm than in the past fiscal year.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported in July 2006 that the newspaper received invoices documenting the district's legal bills, but the description of the services rendered were redacted by order of the district's general counsel, Garcia Calderon Ruiz, and that no details were offered by the firm.
Apuzzo expressed her alarm for the "outrageous costs" the firm charged the Sweetwater district. On the other hand, her review of Lozano Smith's references turned up no billing issues.
The firm has served the Morgan Hill Unified School District for 16 years.
"Lozano Smith is a whole lot cheaper, comparing apples to apples," Trustee Tom Bundros said. "I'm leaning strongly toward Lozano Smith."
Superintendent Deborah Flores will negotiate a contract with Garcia Calderon Ruiz.
ROSEMEAD - The decision to hire two law firms for municipal work is proving costly and confusing, city officials said.
The law firm Garcia, Calderon and Ruiz was hired in April to take over as the city's and redevelopment agency's attorney. But half of the firm's work was taken away in September when Burke, Williams and Sorensen was hired to represent the redevelopment agency.
City officials said the move would help reduce attorney's fees. But since then, attorney's bills are higher than in past years, and officials can't agree on how to divvy up the responsibilities.
"As of today, there still needs to be more clarification," Mayor John Tran said.
Confusion remains on whether Garcia's firm will be representing the Planning Commission or if that duty should be passed on to Burke, Williams and Sorensen. The City Council on Tuesday requested to review both firms' contracts and to discuss it at a future meeting.
The Planning Commission handles issues related to land use, and Burke, Williams and Sorensen was hired to represent the city on those matters. But Garcia's firm is still representing the commission.
Councilwoman Margaret Clark is concerned the city is being overcharged by Garcia's firm.
City Attorney Bonifacio Garcia has charged the city nearly $164,000 for five months of work, including an August bill for $17,622, and a May bill for $56,440.
Burke, Williams and Sorensen charged $5,612 for the month of September.
"I've been disappointed in the billing and the performance," Clark said referring to Garcia's firm.
In the meantime, the city is also paying its former law firm, Wallin, Kress, Reisman and Kranitz, for several cases it is handling. During six months, the firm has charged nearly $30,000, including $1,862 a month for health insurance.
City Manager Oliver Chi said the council has addressed ways to control Garcia's attorney's fees, and they are beginning to see the effects now.
"We are at a better place today at our legal costs than several months ago," he said.
Garcia's high bills prompted the city to place a cap on his contract, limiting him to $30,000 a month.
"I am satisfied with the type of work and legal advice that his firm has provided," Tran said.
Rosemead has budgeted legal fees at $265,000 for the 2007-08 fiscal year, and Chi expects the fees to exceed the budget.
"It falls in line with what we have already set aside for what we've budgeted," Tran said. "We took action to decrease our legal bills, and I think that it is working."
Pasadena Star News, November 26, 2007
City attorney fees still high Rosemead looking to trim spiraling costs
By Jennifer McLain, Staff Writer
ROSEMEAD - City attorney fees remain high despite shifts in billing practices and the hiring of a new lawyer.
Bonifacio Garcia of Garcia, Calderon and Ruiz was hired in April to represent Rosemead and its redevelopment agency. In four months, he has charged the city nearly $137,000. This includes an invoice dated Sept. 3 for $37,286, and a $52,677 bill for work done in May.
Rosemead has budgeted legal fees at $265,000 for the 2007-08 fiscal year. If Garcia's billing trend continues, fees could cost the city as much as $500,000 for one year, starting from the attorney's hiring date.
Garcia did not return phone calls for comment.
In part because of the high fees, the City Council decided to cap Garcia's monthly bill at $30,000, and as of Sept. 1, a new law firm was taking over duties for the redevelopment agency.
But city officials now can't seem to agree just where Garcia's responsibilities end.
City Manager Oliver Chi said Burke, Williams and Sorensen was hired last month, replacing Garcia, to represent the city on all land use, housing and redevelopment issues.
"The planning commission handles land-use related issues," Chi said.
But Garcia's firm has continued to provide legal advice at the planning commission meetings. His contract required that he attend all planning commission meetings. In a revised contract, effective Sept. 1, that was redacted.
Mayor John Tran and Councilman John Nunez said they intend for Garcia to remain as attorney of the planning commission.
"As far as I understand, he will continue to represent the planning commission," Nunez said. "The redevelopment agency is separate from the planning commission."
Joe Montes, an attorney from Burke, Williams and Sorensen, will soon be representing the city's planning commission meetings, Chi said.
Montes did not return calls.
"We are in the process of transferring all of the planning commission related items to Joe Montes," Chi said. "This should be done by the next planning commission meeting."
Councilwoman Margaret Clark said she thinks Garcia is milking the city's coffers.
"I would like Burke, Williams and Sorensen to take over all of the attorney representation for the city," Clark said. Now, "we would be paying double for some of the same research on the same issues."
A May billing statement shows that Garcia charged $7,478 for preparation and attendance of two planning commission meetings.
Clark believes that Garcia is being "nitpicky" with his legal fees.
"Where is all the money going?" Clark said.
Nunez attributes the fees to changes in City Hall.
"There's a lot going on in the city," Nunez said. "I think the costs are justified because he is doing a lot of work that is over and above in the last couple of months."
Huge legal fees dog attorney Cities fired Garcia over bill excesses
By Jennifer McLain, Staff Writer
Concerns about legal fees trail Rosemead's city attorney, Bonifacio Garcia.
Officials at several cities have complained about high bills, questionable charges and lack of city attorney experience.
Garcia's firm, Garcia, Calderon and Ruiz, represents Rosemead, Wasco, Garvey School District and served Arvin's planning commission until the city fired the attorneys in July.
Garcia defends the quality of his firm's work and its rates.
"We want the highest quality of lawyers," he said, "and we're willing to pay for them and so are our clients."
Garcia is relatively new to the city attorney's business. He spent the past 11 years representing Garvey School District. In his 26 years as a lawyer, his first city attorney job was in January for the city of Wasco, which is near Bakersfield.
Garcia's lack of experience was the cause for an increase in costs in Arvin, Wasco and Rosemead, officials said.
"People think an attorney is an attorney is an attorney," said Alan Christensen, interim city manager at Arvin. "But you wouldn't hire a research attorney to do litigation for you. Of course they could learn, but it will be on the city's dime."
In Rosemead, a May bill for $55,000 prompted the City Council on Tuesday to place a $30,000 cap on Garcia's contract.
Garcia charged the city $100,000 the past three months. That is nearly the total charged for a year's worth of work by the previous law firm, Wallin, Kress, Reisman and Kranitz, according to city records.
From 2000 to 2007, annual charges from Wallin, Kress, Reisman and Kranitz ranged from $137,583 to $179,219, according to the city's finance records.
Rosemead City Council members Gary Taylor and Margaret Clark said Garcia performed work that should be done by staff and that is another reason why his bills were so high.
Garcia was originally hired to represent Rosemead's redevelopment agency, city and housing authority. Two weeks ago, however, the council hired a separate attorney to represent the redevelopment agency and housing authority. Now, Garcia only represents the city.
Pasadena Star News, September 4, 2007
Attorney's bills prompt review
By Jennifer McLain, Staff Writer
ROSEMEAD - The city attorney in May was paid more than four times the average monthly charge of the previous attorney, the latest billing records show.
Bonifacio Garcia charged Rosemead $55,000, though information on what the money was spent for was redacted from records. He declined to give an itemized description of the charges, citing "attorney-client privilege."
"I cannot go into detail," Garcia said. "It was $55,000 worth of work."
The city attorney was hired in April after longtime City Attorney Peter Wallin and the firm Wallin, Kress, Reisman and Kranitz quit.
According to the records, Garcia's law firm worked 222 hours in May, and charged between $210 and $225 per hour. Garcia also gets a $5,000 retainer.
The invoice issued for May is the most recently paid. Invoices for June and July are not yet available.
Garcia charged the city nearly $16,000 in April.
During 2005-06, Wallin, Kress, Reisman and Kranitz charged $170,579, or $14,149 monthly, for their work as redevelopment agency and city attorney.
Rosemead is searching for a new redevelopment agency attorney, and interviews for that position are scheduled for Tuesday.
City officials said they were surprised at the high charge for May.
"I'm shocked that it's such a large amount," said Councilwoman Margaret Clark. "I plan to look into where the money is going."
While Rosemead council members have access to the description of the 76 charges listed, Garcia redacted the information from the records the city released.
Experts say the public deserves the right to know how their money is being spent.
"To not justify that cost to the taxpayers is patronizing," said Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
He said that while some information deserves to be confidential, it is unlikely that all of it should be redacted.
"There may be specific instances in the itemized description where there may be a greater public interest in maintaining the confidentiality of that information," Ewert said. "But it is hard for me to believe that every single item has that status."
Interim City Manager Oliver Chi would only say that Garcia blocked out this information because it was privileged.
"There is detailed information that the city is engaged with, and (Garcia) wanted to redact certain information so that nothing confidential would be made public," Chi said.
Monterey Park's deputy city attorney, Adrian Guerra, said this is not an unusual practice.
"Generally, that type of information is protected under the attorney-client privilege," Guerra said.
City officials would not comment on the redaction of the information.
Instead, it was the cost that prompted Clark to request the council to review Garcia's performance at Tuesday's council meeting.
"We are concerned and staff is looking into the details," said Mayor John Tran.
Chi said he was initially surprised at the high bill, and now is exploring ways in reducing such costs in the future.
Garcia said he stands by his billing.
"I think people get what they pay for," Garcia said Wednesday. "They shouldn't expect something for nothing."
San Gabriel Valley Tribune, August 10, 2007
Town unhappy with report
Wasco citizens pack council meeting on grand jury statement
by Felix Doligosa, Jr., Californian staff writer
WASCO -- Residents yelled "the city is unhappy" in a packed City Council meeting Tuesday night as discussion turned to a grand jury report that accuses council members and the mayor of having too many 'special meetings.'
"It's been quite a rocky two weeks and it's getting to a point where we need a resolution," said Tilo Cortez Jr., vice mayor and council member for the city.
A grand jury report stated that the council has "far too many 'special meetings'" that leave a perception the city does not want public input.
On Jan. 24, the mayor, Danny Espitia, and one or two council members met to vote on the appointment of an assistant city manager, fire the city attorney and hire a new law firm, according to the grand jury report. The meeting was announced Jan. 23, according to the report.
The grand jury report also said Councilman and former Mayor Fred West Jr. met with the former finance director to discuss his taking on the job as interim city manager. An unsigned contract showed up on the former director's desk, according to the grand jury.
The grand jury report recommends that the City Council get additional training on the Ralph M. Brown Act. The state law allows very limited closed-door meetings concerning public business, according to the report.
The report also recommended that Wasco residents get more involved in City Council meetings, the council stop having special meetings unless it is an emergency and that Espitia should stop voting until the city receives an opinion from the Attorney General of California.
Espitia said he does not want to forward the report to the attorney general because there are lies in it.
"The grand jury was misinformed," he said. "It's wrong. They never interviewed me."
The grand jury said in the report that it interviewed the mayor.
When Cortez asked if the report was telling the truth, Espitia replied, "So we can agree the grand jury can make another mistake."
Dozens of citizens filled the seats and some stood in the aisles as they argued with council members.
"This is just not right," said Wasco resident Susana Rios.
Speakers then began asking why they had no say in the hiring of new City Attorney Bonifacio Garcia.
Garcia has made about $83,000 in four months as the city attorney, said Councilwoman Cherylee Wegman. The grand jury report said Garcia makes about four to five times more than the previous attorney.
Garcia said he would be happy to have an evaluation of his work another time.
"We have to talk about what's on the agenda," said Wegman who tried to direct discussion toward the grand jury report. "It's the law."
After hearing pleas from the audience, the City Council voted to postpone discussion of the alleged Brown Act violations and the hiring of Garcia until a public meeting on July 3.
Bakersfield California, June 20, 2007
Attorneys cost over $1.1 million last fiscal year
By Chris Moran
CHULA VISTA -- South County's high school board has scrapped a $200-an-hour contract with its main attorneys in favor of a $320,400-a-year deal designed to rein in legal spending that topped $1.1 million in the year ending June 30.
The Sweetwater Union High School District board renegotiated the contract after The San Diego Union-Tribune reported in July that the district's legal bills rose by 77 percent in one year. Burke, Williams and Sorensen, the district's main law firm, billed the district $840,279 for the year that ended June 30.
The district used several other firms on a smaller scale, which accounted for $300,000 more in legal costs.
"We look forward to our costs going down this year," said board President Greg Sandoval. However, he said, "In the end it depends on what legal issues come up during the course of the year."
The board voted 4-0 Monday night, with trustee Pearl Quinones absent, to approve the new contract. It caps normal legal services, but does not cover what the agreement calls "extraordinary" matters, such as lawsuits and hearings, labor negotiations and investigations of district employees.
There were at least two such investigations last year.
One targeted an employee suspected of conspiring with a contractor to overcharge the district for paving. Another was of a principal who resigned amid allegations that she stole from her middle school, including a treadmill so large she built a room around it in her home.
Last year, the district also assumed the costs of defending and settling a lawsuit filed by a former principal who contended she was demoted for filing a sexual harassment complaint. Yet more legal bills mounted because of construction-defect lawsuits as the district nears completion of a building program of more than $300 million.
Under the old contract, the district's main attorney, Bonifacio Garcia, had been billing the district for drive time and mileage from his Los Angeles office.
The district was being charged more than $1,100 per visit before Garcia ever set foot in the district's Fifth Avenue headquarters in Chula Vista. He routinely attends board meetings, though some other sizable local districts have an attorney present at board meetings only when a legal issue is identified ahead of time.
Sweetwater relied on Garcia for its recently completed 14-month search for a superintendent, much more than other districts have used attorneys in recent searches. In fact, the district was billed for nine hours of Garcia's time on a day the board met with a former elementary school superintendent who was never officially a candidate for the Sweetwater job.
The new contract is with Garcia Calderon Ruiz, which Garcia formed with attorneys he took with him from Burke, Williams and Sorensen.
Legal costs leaking funds from Otay Water District;
But officials say troubles are over
by Anne Krueger, Staff Writer
SPRING VALLEY -- With legal expenses of more than $500,000 this year, the Otay Water District is still spending a lot more for lawyers than other water districts in the county.
But Otay officials say that much of their legal bills now are for items that a water district should be paying for: dealing with contracts, advising the board or settling with a homeowner when a pipe breaks.
Otay General Manager Mark Watton said the legal budget was a marked improvement from what he called "the dark days" when the district was filled with dissension and legal problems. Those issues culminated in 2004, when the district spent $2.2 million in legal bills.
Otay officials say they're now able to focus on providing water to about 48,000 customers in a rapidly growing section of southeastern San Diego County, instead of worrying about infighting among board members and lawsuits from fired employees.
The water district serves southern El Cajon, Rancho San Diego, Jamul, Spring Valley, Bonita, eastern Chula Vista, Eastlake and Otay Mesa.
The lessening of tension is reflected in the budget for legal costs, Watton said.
"Our legal agenda is about as boring as our board agendas," he said.
At their meeting this week, board members agreed to a yearlong contract with the law firm of Garcia Calderon Ruiz, which includes a retainer of $262,500.
Yuri Calderon and Aerobel Banuelos, the district's attorneys, had been with the law firm of Burke Williams & Sorensen, which has represented the district since 2001. Burke Williams is closing its San Diego office, and Calderon and Banuelos, along with 13 other attorneys, are forming a new firm.
The law firm had been closely involved with some of the controversies the water district faced. Ruben Rodriguez, the district's former auditor, claimed in a lawsuit that he was fired in July 2001 after he was told to investigate questionable hirings and massive legal bills. A Superior Court jury decided in favor of the water district.
Tom Harron filed suit in 2001 after he was fired as the district's attorney and replaced with the Burke Williams firm. Harron's lawsuit is still pending.
Another pending lawsuit was filed by six employees who said they were fired in early 2001 because of a scheme to have them replaced by Latinos. The suit was filed in San Diego County Superior Court after it was dismissed in federal court.
The district also incurred legal expenses to obtain a restraining order in May 2002 against then-board member Tony Inocentes, prohibiting him from harassing two other board members, then-general manager Bob Griego and others.
The legal troubles caused Otay's attorney fees to swell to $1.3 million in fiscal 2002, more than $1 million in 2003, and $2.2 million in 2004.
Watton said legal bills were starting to go down. The district spent about $852,000 in 2005 and $577,000 this fiscal year.
He said actual legal expenses were lower because the district had recovered or expected to be reimbursed by its insurance company for some legal expenses. The district also received a settlement of almost $1 million when it successfully sued its first attorney in the Rodriguez civil suit, claiming he wasn't prepared for trial.
In contrast, other water districts of comparable size pay much less for their annual legal expenses. The Helix Water District, with more than 54,000 customers, paid about $266,000 for legal expenses last year, and $207,000 the year before, General Manager Mark Weston said.
The Padre Dam Municipal Water District, with more than 23,800 customers, paid about $157,000 in legal bills last year, and $212,000 the year before.
Watton said Otay's legal bills were high in part because the district was growing so quickly. The number of customers is predicted to nearly double within the next 15 years, he said, to about 80,000 a year.
Otay Water District's legal costs by fiscal year (July to June):
Sweetwater racks up large, clouded legal bill
Descriptions of services left off released forms
CHULA VISTA -- The Sweetwater Union High School District busted its legal budget halfway through the fiscal year that ended June 30.
Sweetwater reports it spent more than $1 million on legal services for the year, 77 percent more than in the past fiscal year, with some expenses for June yet to be logged.
It's tough to tell why.
Through a public-records request, The San Diego Union-Tribune got invoices documenting the district's legal bills, but the descriptions of services rendered were redacted by order of the district's general counsel, Bonifacio Garcia, who is based in Los Angeles.
With no detail of services, the public can't know if an attorney was working on a lawsuit, advising a board member or attending a board meeting.
Garcia said the billings are not merely descriptions but status reports on legal work, which could reveal strategy to opponents if they were made available to the public.
That may be true in a few instances, but most of the information would not give away any secrets, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition.
"The systematic redacting in over 1,000 pages of legal bills of every single description of the services rendered can only reflect a knee-jerk impulse for secrecy," Scheer said. "It also underscores how forgetful public officials are that this information belongs to the public."
Garcia himself billed the district as much as 15.3 hours in a day, and $131,708 between July 1, 2005, and the end of May. The district has not yet produced June's invoices.
Garcia's legal meter starts running hours before he sets foot in the board room. In what Garcia terms "portal-to-portal" billing, he begins charging Sweetwater $200 an hour for his time the minute he leaves Los Angeles for a 2 �-hour commute to Chula Vista. He also charges for the drive back and $133.50 in mileage expenses.
That means it costs Sweetwater more than $1,100 to have Garcia at a board meeting, in addition to time he spends on open-and closed-session deliberations.
When asked why he doesn't dispatch a San Diego-based attorney to the meetings, Garcia said, "This is a business that is a service business, and it depends on who the client is comfortable with."
Nor does it mean he's the best attorney of the bunch, he said, but it's the choice of the board to use an attorney with whom it has a decade of experience.
"We're not widgets," Garcia said. "It's about the confidence of the client in the counsel."
Board President Greg Sandoval said he believes Garcia can use drive time to talk with Sweetwater staff by phone. But when asked why the board doesn't use a San Diego-based attorney to save on the $1,100-per-meeting cost, he said, "I guess we're going to have to review that."
Months ago Garcia presented district trustees with his findings that Sweetwater's legal bills are in line with those of similar-sized districts in Northern California.
However, the Sweetwater school board appears to have leaned more heavily on attorneys than most other local boards. Garcia attends every Sweetwater board meeting, joined the board for a series of interviews with superintendent candidates during spring and sat in on a Saturday exploratory conversation with former Chula Vista Elementary Superintendent Libby Gil that Sandoval avoided calling a job interview.
San Diego city schools has its own attorneys, and one sits on the dais with the board at meetings. Sweetwater, with 42,000 seventh-through 12th-graders, is the county's second-largest school district, and it contracts with several firms for legal advice, as do other local districts.
But the third-, fourth-and fifth-largest local districts -- Poway Unified, Chula Vista Elementary and Vista Unified -- only have an attorney present at board meetings when a particularly controversial issue is on the agenda. The next-largest district, Grossmont Union High, has an attorney present at every board meeting.
Garcia said he could not comment on why he was at the superintendent candidate interviews during spring and why he's not attending this week's interviews. Spokeswomen for the Oceanside and Poway districts said attorneys were not present at their boards' interviews of the candidates who now hold the superintendent jobs.
Sandoval said Garcia sat in on interviews with four Sweetwater finalists so he could negotiate on the spot with a candidate of the board's choosing. On the day of a special board meeting on March 2, Garcia billed Sweetwater $3,060 for 15.3 hours of work.
At that time, Sandoval said, the board was negotiating with Anthony Monreal, superintendent of a much smaller Fresno-area district. But in mid-March the board announced it was seeking new candidates and never took a vote on Monreal.
In addition, Sweetwater was billed for 9.1 hours of Garcia's time on the day the board spoke with Gil, who was never officially a candidate.
On Monday, the Sweetwater board is scheduled to consider approving a contract with Garcia's new firm. He's leaving Burke, Williams & Sorensen to form his own firm, Garcia Calderon Ruiz. He's taking his team of Sweetwater attorneys with him.
He's also taking his clients. Southwestern College, San Ysidro School District and Otay Water District, which also use Burke, Williams & Sorensen, will consider making the same change at upcoming board meetings. Those other agencies use San Diego-based attorneys at their board meetings.
After doing some litigation for the district in the early 1990s, Garcia was contracted to become the district's chief attorney in 1996. Garcia was in Los Angeles even then, so he established a San Diego office for local attorneys who could serve Sweetwater on legal matters outside of direct work with the board.
Garcia has donated to the election campaigns of trustees Jim Cartmill, Arlie Ricasa and Sandoval. Campaign finance records show donations of $1,000 to Ricasa in 2001-02, $1,000 to Sandoval in 2002 and $975 to Cartmill in 2002.
In separate interviews, Garcia and Dianne Russo, the district's chief financial officer, said there are several reasons for the increase in legal costs:
The investigation of an employee suspected of conspiring with a paving contractor to overcharge the district for paving.
The investigation of a principal who resigned amid allegations that she stole property from her school, including a treadmill so large that she built a room around it in her Eastlake home.
The costs of defending and settling a lawsuit filed by a former principal who contended she was demoted for filing a sexual harassment complaint.
Construction defect lawsuits to correct substandard work among the hundreds of millions of dollars of school building projects done in recent years.
Garcia acknowledged that his time on the superintendent search probably helped boost Sweetwater's legal bills above their average. Billings to Burke, Williams & Sorensen were nearly $800,000 this year, Russo said. That's up from $442,441 in 2003-04 and $102,760 in 2002-03.
San Diego Union-Tribune
July 22, 2006
Sweetwater's annual legal expenses:
2001-02 $ 495,267
2002-03 $ 451,425
2003-04 $ 639,494
2004-05 $ 603,919
2005-06* $ 1,070,863
Sweetwater's annual payments to Burke, Williams and Sorensen:
2001-02 $ 104,357
2002-03 $ 102,760
2003-04 $ 442,441
2004-05 $ 521,304
2005-06* $ 778,481
* Not all accounts for 2005-06 have been settled. Figures could increase.
Editorial Claims aside, all is not well at Otay Water District
Board members of the Otay Water District claim a recent state study shows that all its problems are in the past, or, at least, can be blamed on board members who have since departed.
But that's simply not true. The district continues to incur millions of dollars in legal expenses, and will pay even more attorney bills in the future, due to ongoing managerial problems. And one board member who has been the focus of some of those problems, and therefore some of the lawsuits, is still on the board today -- Jaime Bonilla.
The study by the state Local Agency Formation Commission noted that the water district has undergone serious management problems, but that water service to customers has not been affected. The report noted that Otay has experienced the highest employee turnover rates and legal expenses of any water agency in southern San Diego County. It recommends that the district improve its personnel practices, seeking outside professional help to create a better atmosphere between management and employees. The report also urges that Otay require training for its board and management in the state's open meeting law. The commission found that some of the complaints about the board and management are outside of its purview, and so they have been referred to the county grand jury, district attorney and state Fair Political Practices Commission.
Otay's continuing legal bills show that much is still amiss. The LAFCO report quotes Otay officials as claiming that a spike in legal costs was due to past problems, and that legal costs should diminish now that those problems are in the past. Those statements were recorded no later than early 2003, and probably in 2002.
However, a check register from the Otay Water District last fall shows nearly $1 million in fees paid for legal services in a 50-day period. For a small water district with a $36 million budget, such legal bills are extreme and eventually will hurt customer service if they continue.
And the district's biggest legal challenges still lie ahead. Long-time Otay legal counselor Tom Harron, now chief deputy county counsel, has a pending lawsuit against Otay and board member Jaime Bonilla claiming racial discrimination, defamation and wrongful termination. In a federal lawsuit, six other former employees allege discrimination, wrongful termination and retaliation for labor activities. That federal suit also names Bonilla as a defendant. There's another discrimination lawsuit pending by an ex-employee and yet another one waiting to be filed.
Otay's claim that all its problems are in the past is belied by these lawsuits and by the fact that Bonilla, who is named in several suits, remains a powerful board member. The water district is not only paying legal fees for itself, but also for Bonilla and other district officials named in suits. The result will be mounting bills for years to come. If judgments go against the district, those will have to be paid, too.
The LAFCO study did not harshly criticize the Otay Water District, because the study was a service review, and Otay's water service has not been seriously affected by its management or legal problems -- yet. But the Otay Water District is a public agency and therefore must be held to higher scrutiny than whether the water flows. We hope the grand jury, district attorney and Fair Political Practices Commission will also take a hard look at this troubled public agency.
San Diego Union-Tribune, January 22, 2004 --------------------------------------------------------
Otay Water District's legal advice keeps getting more expensive
In yet another example of the Otay Water District's irresponsibility toward ratepayers, board members have agreed to pay the legal costs for defending their own outside attorneys in a ratepayer's lawsuit against the district.
Got that? Otay board members are paying for attorneys to defend their attorneys. They have no choice. At a November 2001 meeting, in a move that legal experts say was highly unusual for a public agency, board members voted to give the Los Angeles law firm of Burke, Williams & Sorensen blanket indemnity from any legal action brought by anybody against the firm for its advice or its actions on behalf of the district.
Usually, when an outside law firm represents a public agency, either the firm indemnifies the agency against bad legal advice or both sides agree that each will be held harmless. But not at Otay.
Among a half dozen legal actions and complaints pending against the district is a false-claims lawsuit against board member Jaime Bonilla, General Manager Bob Griego, the firm of Burke, Williams & Sorensen, and two Burke attorneys, Bonifacio Garcia and Roberta Sistos. The claim alleges Bonilla directed Garcia and Sistos to perform legal services for the Otay Water District in December 2000, months before the water district board had hired the law firm. In fact, Bonilla himself hadn't even been sworn in as a board member when he ordered the legal services to be performed.
Nonetheless, the law firm submitted bills for more than $32,000 for the months before it had been hired, and Griego and the board, led by Bonilla, paid the bills in March 2001.
The false-claims lawsuit says that money should be repaid to the water district, plus damages and civil penalties.
Garcia and Sistos are closely linked to Bonilla. On the first meeting after Bonilla was sworn in, he helped engineer the firing of the water district's in-house counsel. Burke, Williams & Sorensen was retained shortly thereafter. The district has paid the law firm over $1 million and perhaps as much as $2 million over the past 2 1/2 years. Now, the water district board is paying other legal counsel to represent the law firm and board members for actions taken by the district on advice from Burke, Williams & Sorensen.
Legal experts say the indemnity given to Burke, Williams & Sorensen by the Otay Water District is far from normal procedure for public agencies. Most lawyers would not ask to be released from liability for advice rendered to a client. And why would any client, especially a public agency supported entirely by ratepayer dollars, agree to such a deal? What kind of legal advice is Otay receiving if its attorneys won't stand behind that advice without indemnity?
Garcia says the indemnity clause is perfectly legal and within the rules of professional conduct. He has a letter from Escondido attorney Ellen Peck, dated yesterday, saying as much.
But Burke, Williams & Sorensen does not have the same indemnity clause with its other major South Bay client, the Sweetwater Union High School District. Attorney Dan Shinoff, who is now representing Otay in the false-claims lawsuit, said he has seen such indemnity clauses before. But when asked if he had such indemnity from the district for his legal work, his answer was no.
The indemnity clause could become very costly to Otay ratepayers. The turmoil at the district already has produced a lot of legal action, and more may be forthcoming. If Otay's pricey outside attorneys are responsible for giving legal advice that results in harm to the district, ratepayers will foot the bill. It's just more bad news from the Otay Water District.
Otay Water District's problems are costing ratepayers
People entering Otay Water District board meetings on Sweetwater Springs Road should be issued a program. You can't keep track of all the lawsuits and grievances against the district without a program.
And at the meetings you won't hear about all the district's legal problems involving employee practices. Those are only discussed in closed sessions regarding litigation, which seem to be occurring before every meeting these days.
Once upon a time, before the era of trouble-making board member Jaime Bonilla, the district had little or no legal problems regarding employees. In fact, the employees' association didn't even collect dues because it never needed to pay for legal representation or anything else. Prior to Bonilla, the association had never filed a grievance against district management. Employees had a very good relationship with management.
Now, all that has changed. There are currently five separate lawsuits against the district and a half-dozen grievances that may turn into lawsuits. And the district is spending millions in ratepayers' money for outside legal counsel -- Burke, Williams & Sorensen, LLP, of Los Angeles -- mostly for representation on these lawsuits and grievances. Interestingly, it may have been the advice of Otay's Los Angeles counsel that ultimately led to some of the legal action. Otay's former insurer, which canceled the district's liability contract, is forced to represent the district in some of the cases.
Here are thumbnails on some of the legal action against Otay:
-- Long-time Otay legal counselor Tom Harron was fired in 2001, shortly after Bonilla took power, following secret meetings and phone conversations among Burke, Williams & Sorensen attorneys and both Bonilla and Otay General Manager Bob Griego. Those secret meetings included talks about Harron's employment. After Harron's firing, Burke, Williams & Sorensen took over as Otay's counsel. Harron is claiming racial discrimination, defamation and wrongful termination.
-- Former auditor Reuben Rodriguez is suing for wrongful termination, saying he was fired after he blew the whistle on illegal charges to the district by Burke, Williams & Sorensen.
-- Five employees, including some with exemplary service records, have a case that's before the Public Employee Relations Board and a federal court. These employees allege they were fired without due process and because they were involved in the employees association. Otay settled most of the PERB case, providing $500,000 and stipulating that all five had been fired improperly. A federal suit was filed for denial of due process and racial discrimination. Two people swore under oath that Bonilla said he wanted to fire one employee because she was African-American -- he allegedly used a racial epithet -- and another because she was white. Burke, Williams & Sorensen attorney Bonifacio Garcia denies all allegations against Bonilla.
-- A false claims lawsuit has been brought in state court by a ratepayer who says Otay illegally paid Burke, Williams & Sorensen for legal services to Bonilla, Griego and the water district before Bonilla was on the board and before the board had voted to give the firm a contract. This lawsuit is not against the district, but against Griego, Bonilla and Burke, Williams & Sorensen attorneys. Garcia says he has retained counsel, but it's uncertain who will be paying the bills. And who will be paying the legal bills of Bonilla and Griego? Otay ratepayers should watch their wallets.
-- About a half dozen employee grievances against the district also have been filed for wrongful termination, retaliation and other shoddy practices. One recently became a lawsuit; others will follow. These employees allege that intimidation, harassment and unfair treatment against anyone deemed disloyal to Griego and Bonilla have become routine.
Recently, Otay Water District, through its outside public relations firm, Marston & Marston (paid $10,000 a month), has been telling everybody that Otay's problems are all in the past. They're not. The district's worst problems are in the future, when the bills will come due for all the shenanigans that have been pulled by Bonilla and company since the 2000 election. Ratepayers will be paying for this mischief for years to come.
San Diego Union-Tribune, May 3, 2003 -----------------------------------------------------------
Will somebody investigate shenanigans at Otay Water District?
It's too early to know whether six former Otay Water District employees were fired due to discrimination, as they allege in a recent federal lawsuit. They say they were let go and replaced by Hispanic men who were associates or former employees of Otay board member Jaime Bonilla.
Bonilla is a wealthy radio station owner who, during the 1980s, was the protege of Baja Gov. Xico Leyva, who was ousted from office for extreme corruption. Bonilla bought his way onto the Otay board in 2000 by spending nearly $90,000 on his campaign in a district where candidates usually spent one-tenth that amount. Today, he remains the power behind the board and district management.
A judge and jury -- or a settlement -- will decide the validity of the discrimination claims. But the favoritism and shady hiring practices of the Otay Water District since Bonilla's election don't require a legal hearing to uncover. They do, however, require more ink and paper than are available here, so we'll mention just a few of them.
Shortly after he won in 2000, Bonilla began bringing in cronies, including Leopoldo Valencia. Valencia was once the general manager of the Tijuana Potros of the Mexican Pacific League, a baseball team owned by Bonilla. In 1988, Bonilla and Valencia were banned from the league for life. Newspaper reports said the charges against them were for fixing games and for paying players in excess of the league's salary cap.
Mateo Camarillo, a former business partner of Bonilla's, was brought in for a short time as acting general manager of the water district. A board majority led by Bonilla fired Otay attorney Tom Harron, who was replaced by Bonifacio Garcia, who had done legal work for Bonilla, including, according to documents obtained in an employee lawsuit, providing legal advice on how to fire Harron, cancel department heads' contracts and lay off employees.
Garcia, as an outside counsel on retainer, has charged the district nearly $2 million in fees since he began working for Otay. No other water district has incurred legal bills anywhere near that amount.
Bonilla isn't the only person guilty of favoritism at Otay. General Manager Bob Griego, who is supported by the Bonilla majority on the board, is the person who actually hired Garcia. Garcia also is the counsel for the Sweetwater Union High School District, where Griego is a board member.
Griego just hired Manny Magana as Otay's chief of engineering and water operations. The two worked together for the city of Whittier during the 1980s. Griego also was a partner in a metal fabrication company with his top lieutenant at Otay, German Alvarez, and Griego gave Alvarez a generous raise and even a car in his job at Otay. After the outside business partnership was revealed, Griego said he and Alvarez would divest themselves of their interests in the company. Griego also has brought in Bill Jenkins to Otay, first as a consultant and now as a permanent employee. Jenkins helped Griego to set up a Web site for Griego's failed attempt to run for the Chula Vista City Council last year.
There are many other serious problems at this water district, but you get the general idea. Currently, the Local Agency Formation Commission, a state agency, is conducting a review of Otay Water District practices. We hope the LAFCO review will turn up enough questions to interest the county Grand Jury or District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. The beat goes on at this out-of-the-way corner of local government. We wish somebody would take notice.
San Diego Union-Tribune, March 19, 2003
Conflict of interest in school deal?
By Jennifer Mclain
ROSEMEAD -- A deal that appears to benefit the community, Garvey School District and East Los Angeles College also raises questions about the involvement of the mayor and city attorney.
The city on Tuesday granted permission to the Garvey School District to use Dan T. Williams Elementary School as a satellite campus for ELAC.
The deal came after years of negotiating, said Garvey school board member Bob Bruesch.
It will help Garvey supplement a $512,000 budget shortfall and satisfies ELAC's demand for more classes.
But questions surfaced over the city's and school district's legal representation as well as to a possible $20,000 that Rosemead Mayor John Tran will make from the agreement.
Tran, who served on the Garvey School Board until he left in 2005 to take a seat on the City Council, is a Realtor and served as negotiator between Garvey and ELAC.
"There is nothing wrong with a former trustee acting as a negotiator," said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a watchdog group. "But an attorney can't represent two clients on the same issue. He would have to disqualify himself."
City Attorney Bonifacio Garcia's firm, which represents the Garvey School District, was expected to provide legal counsel for the city's planning commission meeting. But shortly before the meeting, City Manager Oliver Chi said he called another attorney to represent the city on that particular issue. Garcia's firm dealt with the rest of the agenda.
Joe Montes of Burke, Williams and Sorensen was hired last month to take Garcia's place as the city's redevelopment agency lawyer and to be the counsel to the planning commission. However, Montes was not scheduled to start his new position for another two weeks, Chi said.
The potential for conflict of interest could have been there, interim Redevelopment Director Brian Saeki said, but it was avoided by having Montes serve as counsel instead of Garcia's firm.
George Yin, the attorney from Garcia, Calderon and Ruiz, recused himself from the agenda item.
"George Yin made a statement that he has never worked on the project and never provided any opinions on the subject to the (city)staff," Saeki said. "But he did recuse himself, and Joe Montes stepped in and oversaw the proceedings."
Bruesch said the only thing Garcia's firm has done for Garvey in the land deal is, "helping us with dotting all of our 'I's' and crossing all our our 'T's'."
When Garcia was hired in April, council members questioned whether it was a conflict of interest for him to serve as counsel to Garvey School District and the city.
The day that Garcia was hired, Councilwoman Polly Low asked him: "Is there a conflict of interest for you to represent the city of Rosemead as well as the Garvey School District?"
Garcia said there wasn't, and in the event that there was an overlapping issue, "we would step back and .... advise that you bring other counsel to handle your relationship with the school district."
Residents also raised conflict-of-interest questions about the mayor's connection to the lease deal.
Steven Ly, president of a community group, Rosemead Partners, said that he sent out a letter to several hundred neighbors informing them of the possible change in use to Williams School. He also noted Tran's involvement.
"We view what is going on as a conflict of interest," Ly said. "(Tran) will be profiting a large commission."
Tran, who will receive up to 4percent of the $500,000 deal, said that he has been upfront with staff and council members.
"This is another erroneous attempt to mislead and deceive the public once again," Tran said of Rosemead Partners, formerly known as Rosemead Guardians. "The Rosemead Guardians should be ashamed of themselves."
He also said that he plans on recusing himself from the council meeting if this comes.
Stern said as long as Tran doesn't participate in the vote and doesn't tell his colleagues how to vote, he is within the law.
"I told everybody not to mention ELAC in front of me," Tran said. "If it gets approved, I will recuse myself."
Though the mayor said the district contacted him, Bruesch said that Tran approached the district.
"He is a Realtor, and before he went into politics, that is what he did," Bruesch said. "When he said he would negotiate the lease for us it seemed logical because he knew both parties and could work through the issues."