Friday, September 21, 2018
News Roundup

How much does it cost for lawyers to defend St. Pete's sewage mess? $130,000 and counting.

ST. PETERSBURG — When City Council members return from vacation on July 13, they'll have a big vote waiting for them: whether or not to accept a state consent order that requires St. Petersburg to spend hundreds of millions to fix its ailing sewer system.

Meanwhile, taxpayers are already paying another bill: the outside lawyers who helped shape the consent order and who are handling all the other litigation from the recent sewage crisis.

That bill was $130,000 as of June 5 — and it's still growing.

Those same lawyers are also defending the city in an ongoing federal lawsuit filed by environmental groups charging that the city violated the Clean Water Act when it dumped millions of gallons of waste into the waters of Tampa Bay. That suit is likely to keep driving up the price tag.

Outside legal fees aren't the only taxpayer expense resulting from the sewage crisis.

The pending consent order requires the city to pay $820,000 in penalties and costs. If the city doesn't comply, the state could levy daily fines of $1,000. However, the city could satisfy the $820,000 tab by spending an equivalent amount on pollution-control projects.

Since December, the city has paid the Tampa law firm of Manson, Bolves, Donaldson and Varn to represent its interests in negotiating the consent order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Doug Manson, a partner at the firm who has represented the city for much of its work, earns fees of $225 an hour, according to City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch.

Manson did not return a request for comment.

Kovilaritch recommended Manson's firm and the City Council approved, capping fees at $200,000. Those are being paid out of the Water Resources Department's operating fund.

Kovilaritch said she tries to limit the use of outside counsel, but decided to in this case because of the massive amount of work her staff is already doing on myriad sewage-related issues. Since the city's lawyers were already dealing with a since-concluded federal inquiry and an ongoing state investigation, she said it made sense to bring in outside help.

Manson, an environmental law expert, is defending the city against the federal lawsuit. He also has lots of experience negotiating environmental consent orders, she said.

"The City Attorney's Office has always strived to limit the use of outside counsel, and as a result has been successful in minimizing the payment of outside counsel fees," Kovilaritch wrote in an email this week. "In this case, however, I believed retaining Mr. Manson's firm was worth the expenditure of taxpayer funds."

The office of Mayor Rick Kriseman, who is running for re-election this year, declined to comment about legal fees. But the mayor's administration did issue a statement in response to a Tampa Bay Times inquiry about the consent order.

"The mayor has read the current draft of the consent order," wrote mayoral spokesman Ben Kirby in an email. "Should City Council pass it in its current form on July 13, he will sign it. The mayor is looking forward to continuing the work it will take to improve our city's infrastructure."

Much of Kriseman's $304 million sewage fix is outlined in the consent order, which has been negotiated with state officials since the city dumped sewage into Tampa Bay after Tropical Storm Colin last June. The city dumped far more after Hurricane Hermine swept through in early September. Since August 2015, about 200 million gallons have been dumped into the local waterways and streets.

City Council member Steve Kornell says he's generally comfortable with the requirements of the order, although he wishes the state would force the city to reopen the shuttered Albert Whitted plant. It was closed in April 2015, leaving the city with three working sewage plants.

Kornell would rather reopen the fourth plant than wait for the city to finish its master plan for the system in 2019 before it makes a decision. In 2019, the city will have to explain why Albert Whitted should remain closed. City officials haven't definitely said they won't reopen the plant, but the plan to greatly expand capacity at the city's Southwest and Northwest plants will likely be completed by then.

The sewage crisis has been a consistent line of attack by former Mayor Rick Baker, who is challenging Kriseman. Baker blames Kriseman for closing the plant, which the state found exacerbated the sewage crisis by removing 25 million gallons per day of storm-related capacity from the city's sewer system.

Kriseman has blamed the administration of his predecessor, Bill Foster, for setting the plant's closure in motion in 2011. Kriseman has also said he was misled by former sewer officials, who he said assured him sufficient capacity was in place. Several of those officials have been forced to resign or retire, or have been demoted or fired.

Foster has said he'd never have closed the plant before additional capacity was ready to take its place.

Baker has said, if elected, deciding what to do about the Albert Whitted plant would be at the top of his to-do list.

Kriseman declined to comment on whether he thought the city should spend taxpayer money for outside legal counsel. Kirby said they would leave it to Kovilaritch to explain the city's decision.

Kornell praised the city attorney's office for its work — "They do a really good job," he said — and said he understood why they needed outside help.

"I would prefer we didn't have to spend the money at all," Kornell said, "but it makes sense to hire expertise for a specific case."

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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