Torrance City Attorney’s Office Needs to be Held Accountable
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:
- Lawsuit involving a 32-year-old disabled woman with cerebral palsy who sued the city for a permanent handicapped parking space on the street in front of her home in accordance with the American with Disabilities Act. According to the Daily Breeze, the City has already spent $243K and allocated another $315K to prohibit the lady from obtaining the parking space.
- A lawsuit challenging Torrance’s ban on tattoo parlors. Torrance had continued to enforce the ban despite a 2010 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision declaring such bans unconstitutional. Torrance later adopted an urgency ordinance allowing Tattoo Parlors.
- A lawsuit where Torrance spent an estimated $600K to prevent a former Police Officer from holding an evidentiary hearing where he planned to present evidence that a background check conducted by TPD was biased.
- A lawsuit where Torrance illegally failed to return firearms to their rightful owner and ignored two court orders requiring them to do so.
- A lawsuit where plaintiffs claim the City of Torrance erroneously froze their bank account leaving them unable to access the $340K in the account for four years.
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:
- Accusations by the Torrance Refinery Alliance that the City secretly reduced the amount of the additive in Hydrofluoric Acid used at the ExxonMobil refinery. In one article, the City Manager admitted to the reduction but declined to say by how much. Activists have claimed the reduction was a violation of the Consent Decree agreed upon between Exxon and Torrance and called upon City officials to conduct a full review of the Decree. The City Attorney has made no public comment nor made any public move to enforce Torrance’s rights.
- Penske Cadillac has apparently continued to operate in violation of several City codes and Penske’s Conditional Use Permit. The lack of enforcement has led to many complaints from surrounding neighbors.
- Use of Water Funds (an enterprise fund) to pay for expenditures like celebratory fireworks that would normally be paid for using General Fund monies. City Attorney provided no comment at public hearing despite one resident openly questioning the legality of the transaction.
- City’s implementation of “Optimized Street Sweeping” Program under guise that City would be subject to fines of $10K a day unless Program was implemented. When pressed at a public hearing, City officials could not cite/provide state law that granted the state authority to levy such harsh penalties. Program was implemented in May 2014. City admitted in December 2015 public meeting that state is not enforcing fines.
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?