COSTA MESA — The city's main legal counsel charged $817,913 in fees for the 2010-11 fiscal year — the most the Jones & Mayer law firm has billed the city for a single year, records show.
Costa Mesa spent twice as much on city attorney-related costs in 2010-11 than in the previous fiscal year, going 54% over budget for such expenses this past year, according to the records.
The invoice from the Fullerton firm, which the city started contracting with in 2004-05, was $287,363 over the $530,550 Costa Mesa had budgeted. City Hall does not have inside counsel.
Since contracting with Jones & Mayer, the city attorney's office hadn't exceeded more than $550,000 in a single year, records show.
Costa Mesa's city attorney budget for 2011-12 is the office's largest one yet at $803,000.
"We also created, for the first time, a contingency account in the budget with an allocation of $970,000 in case we need funding for certain issues," city Chief Executive Tom Hatch said. "We will have to monitor the budget as we move forward."
When Costa Mesa used in-house legal services before Jones & Mayer, annual costs before adding litigation ranged from $700,000 to $860,000, records show.
Councilwoman Wendy Leece blamed the increases on her new council colleagues.
"My observation is that the city attorney was involved in a lot of meetings, received and answered telephone calls that we were billed for (and) that relate a lot to the proposed changes by the new members of the council," she said.
"I appreciate Councilwoman Leece's comments; it won't be the first time she's wrong," Councilman Steve Mensinger said. "I'm still trying to convince her the city operates like a business."
Between April and June, Jones & Mayer billed Costa Mesa $44,455 for council-related work and nearly $30,000 each for city manager-related and Police Department-related work. When combined with work related to code enforcement, the city rang up $125,916 in non-litigation billings.
Costa Mesa has a separate budget item for legal judgments, settlements and litigation. In that area, the city was under budget this past fiscal year.
Out of $963,040 budgeted in liability, Jones & Mayer reported about $643,000 in costs, leaving more than $320,000 for the city at year's end.
Much of the costs went to courtroom litigation related to the Orange County Fairgrounds, medical marijuana dispensary lawsuits and frequent, routine lawsuits filed against police officers, records show.
The city faces a slew of legal issues coming into the next fiscal year, from local marijuana dispensary laws and defending itself from an organized labor lawsuit to complications that can come with new police officers as experienced ones leave for other departments or are laid off.
"We're taking the risk of more lawsuits from lack of experience and lack of understanding of the law," Leece said.
Regardless, city leaders are confident the city has budgeted properly for any legal issues the city can face in the new year.
"Based upon my conversation with [City Attorney] Tom Duarte, it appears to be sufficient for litigation," Mensinger said.