City OKs increase in legal fees

City OKs  increase in legal feesBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

During its June 21 meeting, the Ridgecrest City Council approved an additional $60,000 for legal services for fiscal year 2016-17. The increase was unanimously approved with the expectation of a large legal bill before the end of the month.

The original budget for legal services for 2016-17 was approved at $200,000 during last year’s budget hearings. To date council has increased that amount by $195,000, more than doubling legal expenditures for the previous fiscal year.

Councilmember Lindsey Stephens said she was “astonished” by a surprise $60,000 bill the city received last month.

“Is there a better system of how we can track these things?” she asked. “That just concerns me.”

Councilmember Wallace Martin, who participated remotely via speakerphone, shared Stephens’ concerns.

“I think we need, as a general rule, to be marching in the direction of decreasing our legal fees,” he said.

Stephens said she didn’t want council to be signing off on increased legal expenses every other month. City Attorney Keith Lemieux added that the city would indeed receive another large bill at the end of June.

Lemieux also clarified that the city wasn’t approving any additional services, only paying for services that had already been approved.

He attributed the majority of the increased spending to an ongoing civil trial between the city and Christopher Calvi.

“We can’t talk about the specific nature of the litigation in public setting,” he added. “We have to do this work. We have to defend the city.”

Stephens also brought up the city’s role in the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority as a catalyst for some of the increases.

Mayor Peggy Breeden, who serves the IWVGA as the city’s representative, said that those expenses would eventually decrease, though neither she nor Lemieux offered actual figures.

Council also voted to establish a standing Finance Committee in place of the ad hoc Budget Review Committee.

The new committee will be open to the public and has no end date as opposed to the temporary ad hoc committee.

Stephens and Councilmember Mike Mower will presumably continue to serve as the committee’s representatives; no new councilmembers were assigned.

Members of the public have long been requesting a permanent committee to review the city’s finances and take input from the public.

The standing committee would allow meetings to be open to the public.

“I think the public’s involvement is a necessity,” said Stan Rajtora. But he objected to part of the resolution which read that the committee would review the annual budget only “when requested by the City Council.”

Ultimately council approved the resolution as written.

Lemieux argued the wording was fine and that it was only practical that budget review would become a routine practice.

Council will not meet during the first Wednesday of the month because of the July 4 holiday.

The next meeting is scheduled for July 19. Agenda information will be available online at www.ridgecrest-ca.gov/ridgecrest-city-council.

Pictured: City Attorney Keith Lemieux at the June 21 meeting of the Ridgecrest City Council. -- Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2017-06-30