After nearly two years of controversy surrounding its City Attorney, South Pasadena’s City Council on Wednesday is set to re-designate Teresa L. Highsmith to the role of Assistant City Attorney and to promote current Assistant City Attorney Andrew Jared to the top position. Highsmith, a shareholder in the Pasadena-based law firm Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley, has served as City Attorney since 2014.
Jared, a graduate of Pepperdine University School of Law, who was admitted to the bar in 2001, is a senior counsel in CHW’s public agency advisory group. He was previously Assistant City Attorney in Chico and in Pomona, where he held the position for 13 years. He also heads CHW’s CEQA and land use practices.
The city released word of the change in its September 1 Council agenda packet. In a “background” section, it gave a brief history of the city’s contract with CHW but did not offer an explanation for the changes. The action comes less than two weeks after the Council held a closed meeting described as performance review of the city attorney. Highsmith reportedly attended that meeting virtually, but was not present, virtually or in person, for the regular public city council meeting that followed.
“Ms. Highsmith, who has been the named City Attorney for over 7 years, has indicated to the City Council that she would like to transition her primary role to Mr. Jared,” City Manager Arminé Chaparyan said in a statement to the South Pasadenan News. “Mr. Jared has been working closely with City staff for the past 18 months and has been instrumental in also working with several commissions.”
Highsmith has been under scrutiny from city observers who have questioned some of her legal advice, particularly over the city’s ongoing and expensive litigation involving citizen Alison Smith, and the firm’s legal billings.
Highsmith has not appeared at a public city council meeting since May 5 and has been scaling back her service at other CHW municipal clients. For example, Highsmith previously served as city attorney in the City of Barstow, but this year another CHW colleague, Mathew T. Summers, was promoted to that position while Highsmith took over the assistant city attorney job.
Highsmith was admitted to the California bar in 1991. She did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
At a city council meeting Aug. 18, Council Member Jon Primuth, himself an attorney, said he’d reviewed and was satisfied with CHW’s legal billings, but said this did not mean that he believed “everything is fine with the city’s legal affairs.”
The City has sustained several adverse rulings of late, including being forced to rehire a terminated firefighter, settling with a former employee who claimed she was the subject of retaliation, and losing an anti-SLAPP motion in the Smith case. Highsmith also got into a verbal scuffle with former City Council Member Stephen Rossi over records he demanded to see.
In addition to Rossi, Council Member Evelyn Zneimer, also an attorney, has taken aim at Highsmith, questioning her handling of the Smith case, legal bills, and other matters.
Critics such as citizen Chris Bray have questioned Highsmith’s legal judgement, particularly in the Smith case, in which the city disputed the cause of a sewage spill on Smith’s property and, after she filed suit and went public with her concerns, sent police to her home for a permit enforcement action, causing Smith to add a civil rights complaint to her suit.
The case, now on appeal and still to be briefed, has cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, even though it is widely believed the case could be settled for a fraction of that. Nor is it clear if the city’s insurance pool will pay for the appeal.
The case revolves around an “inverse condemnation” action. Bray has pointed out that CHW attorneys were instrumental in winning a state Supreme Court ruling, Oroville vs. Superior Court, that set a precedent for inverse condemnation and that CHW’s attorneys have leveraged the ruling in sales and seminar presentations.
“It appears to me, based on the available evidence, that [CHW’s] intent with regard to Alison Smith’s case is not to limit the cost and harm of the case to the City of South Pasadena,” Bray said in a recent message to city council members. “Rather, their intent is to score a high-profile win that they can advertise to potential clients.”
The city has offered no public defense against the accusations, though Mayor Diana Mahmud has repeatedly expressed her confidence in Highsmith.
Bray called the “departure” of Highsmith’s “welcome and overdue,” but said the city should put the city’s legal services out for bid, rather than simply switching Highsmith out for Jared.
The City noted that its 2014 hiring of CHW was the result of an RFP that went out to 27 firms. Half responded and six were interviewed. South Pasadena currently pays CHW a monthly retainer of $10,000 plus a schedule of hourly rates for various services that in the last two months have averaged a total of $75,000. The contract amendments to be adopted Wednesday make no changes to the rates or any contract terms besides setting forth the new designations for City Attorney and Assistant City Attorney.
In her statement, City Manager Chaparyan noted that “CHW is a full-service municipal law firm in all aspects of local government practice with over 30 seasoned attorneys.” As these attorneys “are involved in several ongoing projects and lawsuits, this is a great opportunity to retain the institutional knowledge CHW has about the organization and community while having an experienced member of the CHW team continue as our City Attorney.”