South Pasadena Council Member Jon Primuth during Wednesday’s Council meeting expressed confidence the city is getting good value for the money it is spending for legal services from the firm of city attorney Teresa Highsmith. His comments came in response to alarm expressed by some citizens and council members about dramatic increases in the monthly billings from Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley.
Primuth said he did “lengthy reviews” of the invoices received—$78,092 for June and $72,207 for May.
“The invoices are as detailed as I’ve ever seen legal invoices to be,” Primuth said, noting he’s been a practicing attorney since 1989. “I looked for issues I could find, and I didn’t find anything. Nothing I could see warrants any objection. There was adequate transparency for everything that was being done. There was value to the services that were being provided.” He said hourly rates were “very reasonable” and the amount of time billed “adequate for getting the job done.”
“This is not about me saying that everything is fine with the city’s legal affairs,” Primuth said without elaboration. “But it is saying that I feel comfortable with our counsel.”
Primuth’s review included material not made public. But on the public list of monthly warrants, CHW’s bills are broken down into between a half dozen and a dozen line items. This month, these included “general services” ($10,002); legal work concerning Caltrans ($19,214); “Case 2,” (the city’s litigation over a sewage leak) ($26,628); labor & employment ($2,303) and others.
The concern was raised again during Wednesday’s meeting by former city council candidate Alan Ehrlich, who focused especially on the bills’ “special projects” line item. CHW billed $15,778 for special projects in June, compared to $36,815 the month before. “If you consider that $15,000 is less than $36,000, that’s an improvement, but it’s not something I think you should be proud of,”
Ehrlich, who has been questioning CHW’s bills for over a year now, complained about how Mayor Diana Mahmud responded when he raised the same issue during the Council’s July 21 meeting. The mayor said she’d looked at the CWH billings and remarked the “single largest component of special projects is in response to public record act requests,” noting that the city attorney must rule on which documents are responsive and which privileged.
“Hogwash!” Ehrlich exclaimed Wednesday, saying the same “excuse” was offered last year. “You should all be asking the question why are so many public record requests being submitted and why do they need to go to the city attorney for review?”
Last week, the city provided an incomplete list showing that since the beginning of 2020, the city has received 391 formal public record requests. Ehrlich filed at least 34 of these, by far the largest of any single source.
In an email Thursday, another CHW critic, resident Chris Bray, thanked Primuth for his review of the CHW billings. “I can’t dispute your description of ‘special project’ billing as a fair reflection of a wide range of projects in a city facing many complicated issues.”
But Bray noted that last year, when former Council Member Stephen Rossi asked to review CHW’s invoices, he was refused. Highsmith argued allowing such a review would be a violation of the attorney-client privilege because Rossi, who was also a Highsmith critic, was not a council member when the litigation being billed was initiated. It was unclear why Primuth, who joined the Council in January, was allowed to review the material, which is known to include litigation initiated prior to his tenure on the Council.
“It appears that the city attorney’s ironclad ethical principles change from year to year, and change depending on the personality of the person seeking information,” Bray wrote.
The Council’s closed meeting agenda for Wednesday included a “public employee performance review” for the City Attorney. Highsmith was not present for the open meeting, but assistant city attorney Andrew Jared reported that “an evaluation was performed” and that “no final action was taken.”