Torrance City Attorney’s Office Needs to be Held Accountable

Torrance City Attorney, John Fellows

Torrance City Attorney, John Fellows

Last April the City Council raised the salary of City Attorney, John Fellows, from $260K to $280K a year further increasing what was already one of the most generous compensation packages in the state for a City Attorney.  The raise also made him the highest paid City employee in terms of salary eclipsing the $268K earned by the City Manager.  According to Transparent California his total compensation in 2014, prior to the increase in pay, amounted to $365K.

The salary increase for Fellows came at the expense of four Legal Secretaries that support his office.  Despite a salary survey showing the secretaries made 12.8% less than their peers, the Council removed a raise for them from the budget.  The money from Fellows raise alone would have been enough to provide each of the four legal secretaries about a 10% raise.

In addition to the four secretaries, Fellow’s staff includes an Assistant City Attorney, 5 Deputy City Attorney’s, a Law Office Administrator, and a part-time Office Assistant.  The cost in salaries and benefits alone for the department is $2.3 Million. The City Attorney also approves untold millions in contracts with private law firms.

As most of the discussion pertaining to legal matters occurs in closed session out of public view, the public has little insight into what it receives for the millions of tax dollars it spends on legal services.

One recent case exemplifies how the public is often left in the dark.  In that instance, a police officer sued the City after being tasered by his supervisor.  The City approved a $1.9 Million settlement after spending $650K in legal fees.  The public was not made aware of the settlement, however, until over a year later after an inquiry led by the Daily Breeze.  Responding to why that settlement was not disclosed to the public earlier, Fellows was quoted as saying:

“It wasn’t done intentionally…we’re not trying to hide it. We’re just not trying to publicize it. It’s a fine line.”

A flurry of other recent cases that were made public raises the question of whether the City is receiving the best legal advice and getting the best value for the taxpayer.

As one prime example, the Daily Breeze detailed a recent case in which a citizen was criminally charged for violating of pair of City ordinances written in the 1950’s pertaining to gun carrying that allegedly violated current state law and the constitution.  Despite the apparent unconstitutionality of the old statutes, the City prosecuted the individual anyway.  This action led to threats of a lawsuit that eventually prompted City officials to quietly repeal the old laws.

In another case, Torrance filed criminal charges against a small business owner for temporarily erecting four decorative Halloween signs.  The City eventually dropped the charges after a drawn out 7 month legal process.  Deputy Community Development Director Linda Cessna was quoted about the case stating:

“As it turns out, the way our sign code is written, what we thought was clear is not clear to our legal department, so we need to revamp.”

In relation to that case, City Assistant Attorney Patrick Sullivan stated:

“The charge was based upon a section of the code that officials eventually concluded didn’t apply to his alleged violation.”

Notably, the opposing attorney in that case claimed the City was “extorting money from people accused of crimes.”

Other recent cases where the City received questionable legal advice include:

Questions surrounding the City Attorney’s office are compounded by other recent situations where the office has failed to publicly act/comment/advise.  Some of these include:

The City Attorney’s office Mission Statement includes the phrase that, “We are committed to serving the public fairly and justly.”  When asked by the public at a meeting last year, however, whether an internal e-mail circulated amongst the Council constituted a violation of the Brown Act, Assistant City Attorney Patrick Sullivan made it clear who he serves by declining to answer the question and stating that, “I don’t give advice to the public … the Council and the City is my client.”

Since the City Attorney’s office does not consider the public a client and conducts most of it’s business behind closed doors, how do we know we are getting the best value for the taxpayer when it comes to legal advice?

The City’s self insurance fund has recently been depleted so much due to legal fees that it required the Council to divert large sums from other sources to replenish the fund.  With so much money going to legal fees, money that could be spent on other priorities like fixing our ailing infrastructure, who is holding the City Attorney’s office accountable for all those dollars they are spending?

4 comments

  • Once the 4 secretaries see this, not sure how happy a work environment that Attorney’s office will be come Monday morning. Great work, as usual, Clint. Thank you!
    Now, how do we get the City to rescind that raise?

    • Jim McGee

      It’ll never happen Amynyla. The cty council is under the control of the city manager who quietly pulls the strings. No different than the previous city council administration. The sad thing is that the voting public doesn’t care. For the city attorney to have 4 scretaries is obscene.

  • Perhaps the City Attorney should be an elected office like it is in some other cities (Long Beach and Los Angeles, for example). Then he/she would be accountable to the people, not a puppet of the City Council, and there would be some “checks and balances.”

  • Don clounch

    What format is available to hold a city employee accountable ?

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