ST. PETE BEACH — After spending nearly a half-million dollars on legal fees this past year, the commission set a new, tougher fiscal tone Tuesday when it refused to pay its attorney's latest bill.
"This is hogwash," Mayor Mike Finnerty told city attorney Mike Davis, adding that the latest billing was "an act of betrayal" by a law firm that has been paid a "tremendous amount of money" by the city.
The new bill from the Bryant Miller Olive law firm had nothing to do with ongoing legal challenges to a comprehensive plan approved by voters two years ago. It was for work done on a planned special assessment for repairs to the city's stormwater system.
The ongoing wrangling on the comp plan cost the city $376,000 in just the past year — the bulk of the city's total $440,000 legal bill for the 2009-2010 fiscal year.
Hoping that its legal fees might decrease in the coming year, the city's current budget allows for $250,000 for that expense.
"I am tired of spending all this money," Finnerty said. "Every time we turn around we are spending money for lawsuits. I am really objecting to it. I am tired of continually providing you (the attorneys) with money for all these lawsuits."
Other commissioners were equally upset over the bill for the special assessment legal work.
"We are very sorry it got up to that number," Davis told the commission.
He also apologized for not letting either the city manager or the commission know that additional legal work — and extra charges — were being incurred by his firm.
"St. Pete Beach is a highly litigious community," Davis said, explaining that he did not want to remind residents that they could protest the planned assessment in court.
"We didn't want to invite people to show up and contest it," Davis said.
"If you can't tell us in the sunshine (during an open meeting), we are not shy about having shade meetings (closed to the public). You let us down," Vice Mayor Jim Parent responded.
Commissioners Marvin Shavlan and Bev Garnett were also highly critical of Davis and his firm.
Last year, the commission approved spending about $69,000 for the law firm's work on the stormwater assessment.
At the time, Davis told the commission the cost would be no higher unless a resident challenged the assessment.
No one did.
But when the final bill was presented to the city, it was more than $18,000 higher than the originally proposed amount.
Davis defended the billing, explaining that his law firm performed extra work preparing for a court hearing on the stormwater assessment because of "several inquiries" from parties who indicated they might sue the city over the program.
"An alarm bell goes off when that happens," Davis said. "So we redoubled our efforts."
The commission did not accept that reasoning, arguing that the firm should have waited until an actual legal challenge was filed.
City Manager Mike Bonfield also told the commission that he was unable to determine from the law firm's billing where or why the extra time was incurred.
When Finnerty, who strongly pushed for the city to hire Davis and his firm several years ago, also refused to pay, Davis said: "We will withdraw the request. You don't have to act on it."