City approves legal fee increase

City approves legal fee increaseBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

The city will see an increase in legal fees after the Ridgecrest City Council voted 4-1 to approve a new city attorney retainer agreement with Olivarez Madruga Lemieux O’Neill, LLP. The agreement ups the monthly retainer fee of $9,500 to $11,000 (a five-percent increase for the last two years as well as the upcoming year), with a similar method being applied to the hourly rate for special services, raising it to $260.

“Updating the firm’s retainer agreement with the city is long overdue,” said the agenda item, noting that it has remain unchanged since 2009.

“It’s been 11 years since we’ve seen an increase, so I think if you do the math – it seems pretty reasonable,” said Councilmember Scott Hayman.

But Mayor Pro Tem Lindsey Stephens questioned the increase.

“I’m reviewing the dollars we’ve spent in the past couple years for lawyers, and I’m concerned,” said Mayor Pro Tem Lindsey Stephens. She said she reached out to the city of Tehachapi, who reportedly pays its attorney an hourly rate of $145 with no retainer agreement.

She also questioned approving the increase without looking at what other opportunities there were for the city.

“Is there a reason why we can’t get bids?” she asked. “To show the public that we’ve looked at this – we do that on all of our other projects.”

“Why don’t we go out and look around to see if we can find a better deal for the citizens rather than just stay with Lemieux & O’Neill forever,” said Mike Neel, who called in during public comment. “The city should go out and get bids for the services and evaluate those bids by both cost and past performance records.”

Mayor Peggy Breeden urged caution in seeking out new legal counsel given the controversial water decisions being made while the city is involved with the Indian Wells Groundwater Authority.

“I’m not in favor of changing horses,” said Breeden. “What I would like to do is to do this for one year, review it, then in nine months we start going out for bids.”

But Stephens still questioned if the city would even be able to afford the increases.

“We’ve already approved our budget for this fiscal year and we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” said Stephens. “What happens if we don’t approve this tonight, can we still use them for the time being while we figure it out?”

Strand said the city budgeted $350,000 for fiscal 2021 legal fees and believes those are sufficient to cover the increases. But Stephens pointed out the city spent more than $400,000 the year prior.

Strand said some $87,000 of last year’s legal expenses should be reimbursed by the Groundwater Authority, but there is no guarantee.

“For due diligence to the tax payer … are we going to find a better deal elsewhere?” asked Councilmember Kyle Blades.

“I believe this law firm meets our needs,” said Strand. “We use them for our water and wastewater negotiations. To change law firms midstream would be problematic for the city with all that’s going on.

“We will always need legal healp and there will always be a cost to that. From a staff perspective, I’m OK.”

Councilmember Mower added that “cheaper does not mean better” when it comes to legal counsel.

Council approved the increase, with Stephens as the only dissenting vote. The motion did not include direction to go out to bid for legal services in the future.

Pictured: City Attorney Keith Lemieux and City Manager Ron Strand — News Review file photo

Story First Published: 2020-09-25