Councilmember Rossi Disputes City Attorney’s Refusal to Provide Legal Information

Rossi said Highsmith has refused to provide him details of existing and potential litigation even though the same information was provided to other Council members in August

FILE PHOTO COLLAGE: SouthPasadenan.com News | Councilmember Stephen Rossi (L), City Attorney Teresa Highsmith (R)

The South Pasadena City Council will discuss asking the State Attorney General for an opinion on whether City Attorney Teresa Highsmith can share information with District 2 Councilmember Stephen Rossi about legal action taken by the city prior to Rossi’s appointment to the Council. The issue arose during Wednesday’s regular Council session after Rossi asked for details of the $36,797 bill Highsmith’s firm — Grass Valley, CA-based Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley (CHW) — submitted to the city for August.

Rossi was appointed to the Council Sept. 2 and is in the middle of a write-in campaign to retain his seat based on a platform of repairing the city’s considerable financial management troubles. He said CHW has invoiced nearly $440,000 this year alone, an amount that on an annualized basis would be twice what CHW billed in 2018, and that the city is on track to spend $170,000, or nearly four times as much than two years ago on what the invoice calls “special projects.”

The spending may all be appropriate, but Rossi said Highsmith has refused to provide him details of existing and potential litigation even though the same information was provided to other Council members in August. She also refused his request for a breakdown to better understand the origin and status of the “special project” billings, which in August came to $12,046 — the highest of any of invoice’s ten separate billing categories.

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Highsmith argued she can’t divulge the information to Rossi because he wasn’t a member of the City Council when the work at issue was undertaken and completed. It would be a violation of her professional licensing, she said.

Rossi was incredulous. “It seems to fly in the face of reason” that every member of the city Council wouldn’t be provided the same information. “Are you suggesting that because I was not on the Council at the time that somehow the attorney-client privilege doesn’t extend to the current members of the Council?”

“For items that are for action that have been taken and deliberated on, and have concluded, that is correct,” she replied. Every Council member is entitled to the same information. But the details of legal bills is attorney-client privilege and pertains to issues the Council acted on prior to Rossi’s appointment. “I do not possess the privilege,” she said; it belongs to the Council body “as a whole, not individual members. I cannot set back the hands of time and draw up an individual member not in the room where the privilege was created.” The Council can waive the privilege but doing so would make the records subject to public disclosure.

Highsmith did offer a description of what special projects entail — work done in connection with “special” Council meetings — the Council has had 19 of those this year, including eight over the last two months alone; projects that take more than ten hours; anything having to do with COVID-19; and legal support for public record requests.

She noted the city’s lowest legal billing rate is for special projects — $50/hour — adding she was “happy to report” the city got a “really great deal” because the August bill represented 191 hours of legal services for an amount that worked out to an hourly rate “way below even the lowest billable category in your contract.”

But Rossi said he wasn’t asking about the rates. “If it’s not appropriate for a sitting City Council member to go back and review what projects our Counsel and outside law firms worked on, how are we ever going to understand how to go back and determine what the right practices and policy are?” he asked. “For me to represent the city in a fiduciary capacity, I’d have to have the same information as the rest of the Council members.”

“This is a difficult question,” said District 3 Council Member Richard Schneider. He suggested a workaround under which Council would hold a closed meeting to review items that occurred before Rossi was appointed and bring him up to date on issues he is asking about.

“How am I supposed to know what issues I want to ask about if I won’t be provided the information (on) what issues exist?” Rossi asked.

District 5 Council Member Diana Mahmud said she asked Interim Assistant City Manager Elaine Aguilar for details of the special projects billing and got a written note saying quite a bit of the time billed on the invoice pertained to the resignation of a Council member; appointment of a replacement; time spent dealing with the former city manager’s resignation process and follow up; drafting special City Council meeting reports and agenda; the new cell tower master lease; and legal work on the Moffat Street extension.

Both Mahmud and Highsmith warned the Council was wading too far afield of the consent item at hand — approval of the monthly warrants — with Highsmith warning, “This dispute— not a good situation.” She offered to write for free a legal opinion explaining her position.

The Council ultimately agreed to a suggestion by Councilman Michael Cacciotti to place on the next Council agenda a discussion on getting a formal legal opinion from the State Attorney General.

With that, the Council voted to approve the monthly warrants and payroll, which along with the CHW bill totaled $1.95 million.

 

 

Ben Tansey is a journalist and author. He grew up in the South Bay and is a graduate of Evergreen State College. He worked in Washington State as a reporter in a rural timber community and for many years as an editor for a Western electric energy policy publication based in Seattle. He and his wife Karin, an arts administrator from El Sereno, live in South Pasadena.