With little affect or discussion Wednesday, South Pasadena City Council members ended the city’s tumultuous nine-year relationship with Pasadena law firm Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley, unanimously voting to approve a three-year contract for city attorney services with Richards, Watson & Gershon, a 60-year old law firm based in Los Angeles.
Council documents said the agreement is for three years with two, one-year renewal options, although the contract itself describes the term as open-ended.
The switch comes after years of controversy and complaints from both inside and outside the city council concerning CHW’s legal strategies, practices and billing fees. On its most recent agenda, the council listed 13 lawsuits in which it is a named party.
The city’s new fiscal year is set to begin July 1. City staff said adoption of the new contract reduces the proposed 2023-24 budget for city legal services by $80,000. It said that working with RWG, it has budgeted $420,000 for 2023-24 city attorney services, which includes RWG’s monthly retainer of $11,750. That compares with the $800,971 spent to date this fiscal year on city attorney services, which includes CHW’s $10,000 monthly retainer, and with the average $590,774 the city paid CHW during each of three fiscal years 2020-2022 for city attorney services.
Under the deal, the new city attorney will be Roxanne M. Diaz, one of RWG’s 36 shareholders. Diaz, with 25 years experience in local government, is also the city attorney in Maywood and Hidden Hills, and was previously city attorney in Manhattan Beach, Indio and Norwalk. South Pasadenan Stephanie Cao, also a RWG shareholder, whose specialties include Brown Act compliance and the Public Records Act, will serve as Assistant City Attorney. The plan also names shareholder David Snow to serve as the city’s designated land use and housing attorney.
Diaz replaces Andrew Jared, who has served as acting City Attorney since 2021, when former City Attorney Teresa Highsmith’s designation was switched to Assistant City Attorney. Highsmith and Jared both work for CHW.
The city will hold “meet the firm” reception for the new RWG attorneys and city residents on June 21 at 5:30 pm in the City Hall courtyard.
Eleven law firms, including CHW, responded to the city’s Feb. 24 detailed request for proposals, which was drafted with city staff. A council subcommittee consisting of Mayor Pro Tem Evelyn Zneimer and Council Member Janet Braun, both of whom raised questions about CHW as part of their election campaigns, reviewed the bids.
Along with the contract, the city published RWG’s 121-page bid in its council packet.
The subcommittee narrowed the list down to four candidates. During separate, two-hour, closed meetings in early May, the full council posed the same list of questions to each of the four finalists.
On Wednesday Braun said, “We looked at their years of experience, other cities they represented, how much they complied with the RFP and how much they knew about our city–it became clear whether it was a standard response or whether it was specific to South Pasadena–and how hungry and interested they really were in representing us.”
She said a “good consensus by everyone in the room” was arrived at with respect to RWG and a contract was drafted.
The new contract took effect June 7. Council will work with RWG to determine what if any outstanding matters should remain with CHW.