Nevada City Council hears from people concerned over city law firm
A handful of people voiced displeasure this week to the Nevada City Council about its contracted law firm, asking it to put out bids for a new firm.
The people, who spoke during the public comment period of Wednesday’s council meeting, accused retired city attorney Hal DeGraw of steering funds to Jones and Mayer by “fighting tooth and nail” to have his firm work on the wireless telecom regulation ordinance as opposed to an outside firm.
However, the city’s contract states DeGraw would have been involved, producing billable hours, regardless of whether an outside firm was used. Most council members expressed support for the firm, with one saying he was told the city was lucky to have Jones and Mayer.
Just over half a dozen residents from inside and out of the city limits — some of whom are on the wireless telecom ordinance working group that is pushing for further changes to the ordinance — requested the council create a citizen’s committee to review the Jones and Mayer invoices for the telecom ordinance, and asked the council provide all future direction to their legal counsel in writing.
“Based on the billing discrepancies in the public comment period, the public working group for the wireless telecom facilities ordinance has a recommendation,” said Lorraine Webb, who lives just outside the city limits. “Why has the contract with Jones and Mayer not been reviewed? Why is the council suddenly passing a resolution to renew that contract and increase that salary from $75 to $175 an hour when the performance has been so poor?”
At the meeting the council approved City Attorney Crissy Hodgson as DeGraw’s successor, along with some amendments to the city’s contract with the firm. The council increased the firm’s hourly rate from $75 an hour to $175 an hour and removed a clause that stipulated the city pay a $3,720 annual fee to the firm in $310 monthly installments for overhead expenses. According to Jones and Mayer and city documents, Nevada City was never billed for those fees, which led to the change in contract to reflect that. The contract had already stated that attorneys other than DeGraw would be paid at the $175 per hour rate.
“The idea behind this is, yes, we will be paying the $175 as per the contract for Crystal, but we will still be monitoring the budget,” City Manager Catrina Olson said. “The idea here is we are going to work within our means with that budget so her hours will probably be a little different than Hal’s were.”
According to the council, both council members and staff have gone through the billings in detailed fashion and plan to meet with a Jones and Mayer partner to go over the invoices and look into any refundable expenses.
“Our staff has multiple people who have looked at it this line-for-line,” Councilman Duane Strawser said at the meeting. “To me they did the job they were asked to do, which is to protect the city, and still give us the strongest ordinance they thought they could provide. The 5G situation is definitely an anomaly with this firm, compared to what we’ve gone through for the last 12-plus years that I’ve been around.”
While most of the council stood behind the firm and the new city attorney, and supported looking into the invoices further with the Jones and Mayer partner, Mayor Reinette Senum said she still had a particular “bone to pick” with the billing.
“I think I’ve made it very clear to the City Council and to Catrina (Olson) that I still have issue and take issue with the $41,000 bill,” Senum said. “I don’t know if the council has gone through the invoice summary. If so they would have seen some red flags that I’ve seen.”
Senum said she would continue highlighting discrepancies with the invoices and the law firm’s work on the ordinance, and abstained from the vote to approve Hodgson.
The commenters also accused the council of not working with outside counsel as Senum suggested, which some council members denied.
“It should be known that we worked with those consultants, pretty well hand-in-hand,” Councilman David Parker said.
According to the city’s contract, DeGraw would still be involved and producing billable hours whether an outside firm was used or not.
Strawser said while a Request for Proposal — in this case, bidding out for city attorney services — is a good idea generally, the city may already have the best available firm.
“An RFP is always smart,” he said. “From our understanding in talking to other firms in the area — those that we could easily ask for an RFP — they basically, at least the ones I communicated with, laughed and said, ‘Yeah, you’re not going to get us for less than $300 an hour and you’re lucky with what you have. They’re a quality firm.’”
The council also noted that the agenda item before them was merely to approve the new attorney and make slight changes that were already in effect, not to review the firm’s contract which can be revoked at any time.
“I think had this happened any other time, this wouldn’t even be a question,” Councilwoman Valerie Moberg said. “It’s just one attorney leaving and another one coming in.”
To contact Staff Writer John Orona, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4229.
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