Responding to last month’s settlement of a discrimination case brought by ex-Westchester firefighter Tennie Pierce for nearly $1.5 million, Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl has called for a review of city policies that govern contracting outside law firms to defend the city government in civil cases.
“Taxpayer dollars need to be protected,” the councilman said. “At times, we need outside counsel, but the costs associated with hiring outside firms have been substantial and call for a thorough review. We need a much better understanding of what we are paying for.”
The city paid $1.3 million to the law firm Jones Day, which worked on the city’s case against Pierce’s lawsuit for approximately ten months.
The former city firefighter, who is African American, sued the Los Angeles Fire Department for discrimination after he was fed spaghetti mixed with dog food at the Westchester Fire Station, and later accused department officials of retaliation after he complained about the incident.
Joining Rosendahl in requesting an examination of the contracting of outside legal counsel is one of his council colleagues, Dennis Zine.
“While we believe that the retaining of outside counsel by the city is desirable in many legal proceedings for various reasons (such as the Pierce case), we need to take a hard look at what services the city is receiving for the payment that the taxpayers are footing,” said Zine.
Zine was disturbed at the amount Jones Day had charged after working on the Pierce case for less than a year.
“What did they do for $1.3 million?” he asked. “They didn’t go to trial.”
Both Rosendahl and Zine opposed the settlement.
Nick Velasquez, the communications director for city attorney Rocky Delgadillo, said the council approved the settlement and, as the city’s governing body, authorizes any contracts and expenditures for outside counsel.
“The councilmembers, as a rule, are regularly updated and briefed on all developments and costs associated with litigation by outside law firms,” Velasquez told The Argonaut.
The city attorney’s communications director pointed out that Zine was the councilmember who made the motion to hire Jones Day to represent the municipal government in the Pierce case.
“He was the author of the motion,” Velasquez noted.
In a council document dated January 19th this year, Zine is listed as having introduced a motion that approved hiring Jones Day.
Rosendahl said that although Zine signed the document that introduced the motion, Zine actually questioned the city attorney’s recommendation to settle with Pierce’s attorney.
“We surely didn’t say, ‘Hire Jones Day and give them a million dollars’,” Rosendahl asserted.
Rosendahl, whose 11th Council District includes Westchester, questioned the policy of farming out so many cases to outside firms.
“Why do we hire so much outside counsel?” he asked. “I think that this really calls into question how the city attorney and his staff are handling this issue. Accountability is what this is all about.”
Delgadillo’s spokesman Velasquez said that the decision to approach private law firms for assistance that requires a certain expertise is done on a case-by-case basis.
“There are various criteria that we consider,” he explained. “Sometimes it comes down to a lack of resources.”
Santa Monica, like Los Angeles, hires outside attorneys based on similar criteria, said Santa Monica assistant city attorney Joseph Lawrence.
“Usually it depends on the nature of the project that we might be involved in,” said Lawrence. “It’s often a resource allocation issue with a lot of cities,” he added, echoing Velasquez.
That is an area that Rosendahl would like to explore and possibly remedy.
“If they don’t have enough staff, we need to train enough people so that we don’t have to use outside attorneys as frequently,” the councilman said.
The size of a city’s city attorney’s office plays a role in how often it might contract with private lawyers, according to Lawrence.
“In Santa Monica, we tend not to use them that often,” he noted. “In cities that have smaller staffs, cases that involve litigation or large development matters can sometimes be very complicated, so they may need to hire outside counsel.”
Rosendahl would like to see Delgadillo’s office look into how its resources are utilized, and whether there is sufficient staff to handle important legal matters that the city might face, including litigation.
“One of my first goals would be to have a staffing pattern that reflects the kind of cases that the city attorney deals with, so that hiring these outside law firms would be the exception rather than the rule,” he said.
Unlike a lot of cities in Southern California, Santa Monica does all of its environmental work in-house, which saves the city literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
In addition to extending a request for proposal (RFP) to law firms when outside counsel is needed, as most cities do, including Los Angeles, Rosendahl is seeking a change in city policy that would set certain parameters and limits that pertain to costs.
“This is something that should have been done a long time ago,” he said.
An RFP is an invitation for suppliers, through a bidding process, to submit a proposal on a specific product or service.
Lawrence pointed out that it is important to remember that even if a city does make the decision to hire a private law firm to take on a particularly thorny or complicated matter, the day-to-day legal business of a city continues and must not be neglected.
“A city’s everyday legal issues are ongoing and do not stop because a very big legal project comes along,” he stated.
Fredrick L. McKnight, a Jones Day spokesman, had not returned phone calls for comment for this story at Argonaut press time.