Members of the Wellington Village Council transferred an additional $400,000 into the village’s legal services fund Tuesday to cover anticipated costs over the upcoming year.
Despite concerns from some council members about the cost of using multiple law firms to handle the litigation, the council voted unanimously to transfer the money. Discussion over whether to hire an in-house or contracted attorney is expected to take place at the next council meeting.
In the meantime, the council could consider hiring a new interim attorney and completely part ways with its current contracted firm, Glen J. Torcivia & Associates.
Village Manager Paul Schofield noted that there are still some legal expenses that will not be covered by the current budgeted amount — among them $112,000 in time from former Village Attorney Jeff Kurtz.
“We have estimated cost of litigation from now through the end of the year at about $250,000,” Schofield said. “We are recommending transferring $400,000 from the rate stabilization fund into the legal services fund. That will cover the normal legal costs, litigation costs and unbilled costs at this point. If we need more, we would come back toward the end of the year once we have a better handle on that number.”
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig was concerned about paying double the cost for the law firm Tew Cardenas to take over monitoring the 11 lawsuits Wellington is facing against horse show promoter Mark Bellissimo.
“I have been clear about my reticence to transfer the litigation only concerning one party,” she said. “We have taken all the litigation that concerned Mark Bellissimo and turned it over to Tew Cardenas.”
This is especially a problem, she said, because it is costing the village more money.
“Their billing rate is almost twice what we’re paying for legal services now,” she said. “I think that’s unnecessary for us to spend twice as much. I would feel much more confident in how we’re handling our finances if we [turned lawsuits over] on an as-needed basis instead of saying everything that has Mark Bellissimo’s name on it should go to Tew Cardenas at twice the rate that we’re paying for legal services now.”
Councilman John Greene asked about the outstanding legal costs for which Kurtz had not yet billed the village.
Last month, council members gave Kurtz 30 days to bring his billing up to date.
Schofield said he had bills through July.
“Those that I receive by the end of the day Thursday I will pay,” he said. “Those I receive that are in after that date, I will not pay. That is my understanding from [the] council. I have August, September and October outstanding.”
Council members then agreed unanimously to make the $400,000 fund transfer.
Councilman Matt Willhite said he wanted to discuss the future of Wellington’s legal department and how council members should determine what would be best for the village.
“What is our course of action?” he asked. “I think we need to decide the goals and objectives for our attorney going forward collectively, and try to get some kind of consensus as to where we go from here.”
Schofield said that if council members choose to hire an in-house counsel, it would be done as an employee hiring, but if they wanted to contract with a law firm, it would mean setting up a selection committee and making the decision.
“The normal process for that is that staff sits as a selection committee and does the interviews, the rankings and then the council does the final selection,” he said. “But if you want to do the interviews and rankings, you would have to pass a measure selecting the council as an alternative selection committee.”
Willhite said another concern he had was the legal budget.
“When I first got here, it was $750,000,” he said. “So it’s not uncommon to have this high of a legal budget when we’re involved in litigation. I think we have to decide, if we were to go in-house, what salary we would be willing to pay. I would think before we put a [request for bids] out, we would have to know that salary.”
Schofield said that council members would first have to decide whether to contract a legal firm or hire their own attorney.
“We have, at the staff level, done the work on creating a legal department,” he said. “It’s a little over $500,000, but that won’t include your contracted legal work. Based on what our short-term legal needs are, and our projection for the next two to five years, we probably have the need for more than one attorney, or at least an attorney, a paralegal and a legal secretary.”
Willhite wanted to know the time frame to have the request for bids or job application out on the market. Schofield said it could be done shortly after he gets the necessary direction.
“The next opportunity to do that will be on Jan. 22,” he said. “It would go out the next day, and I would suggest you leave it open for two weeks.”
Greene was concerned about rushing a report from the independent auditing firm Wellington hired last year to evaluate the costs and benefits of bringing the village attorney in-house.
“I don’t want to force them to put out a report that is anything but complete and thorough,” he said. “I want this report to come back and make sure that I understand everything that’s in place and what our options are.”
Greene was concerned that the council might be too anxious to make a decision about its new legal counsel. Rather, he believed Wellington should hire a new interim attorney.
“Whether you agreed with it or not, in October we voted to make a change to our attorney,” he said. “Three months later, here we are. We’re potentially looking at several more months of the same.”
Greene noted that council members continue to get e-mails and legal advice from Kurtz, who works at Glen J. Torcivia & Associates, even though Torcivia has been sitting in as legal counsel at meetings.
“We’re still getting the same advice from the same individual who we collectively decided to change,” he said. “I’m concerned that we really haven’t done anything different than we were doing.”
Greene said that a delay in getting some documents prepared on time had added to Wellington’s legal cost, which concerned him enough to consider having new legal representation during the decision-making period.
“I would support bringing a new attorney in who will act as a lead attorney, working with Mr. Torcivia,” he said. “Someone who could provide a little more attention and bring me a little more comfort in knowing that the services we are getting are meeting my expectations.”
Gerwig did not like the idea of transitioning twice, which would carry even more added fees.
Greene said that he had looked over the résumés of those who had applied to take the position, but Mayor Bob Margolis said he hadn’t had that opportunity.
“With the council’s approval, I’d ask that we put this on the Jan. 22 meeting as an agenda item,” Margolis said. “I am not prepared to make a motion tonight.”
Council members agreed, and Schofield said the matter would be added to the agenda.