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St. Pete Beach wrestles with cutting legal bills

ST. PETE BEACH — After nearly two hours of debate Tuesday, the City Commission decided to meet privately with its attorney this week as they try to reduce legal bills that lately total as much as $50,000 a month.

Officials hope that some of the city's soaring legal costs can be reduced through negotiations with lawyers representing either residents suing the city or other parties who have joined in the city's defense.

The goal is to eliminate or consolidate many of the lawsuits and for some of the legal expenses to be paid by other parties allied with the city.

The issue, first addressed by Commissioner Linda Chaney, drew sometimes intense debate.

Chaney said she has "sticker shock" from Bryant Miller Olive's "huge" legal bills. The law firm employs Mike Davis, who is the city's attorney.

"We just cannot keep paying $30,000 to $50,000 a month. We just can't," she said.

The city pays Davis a $5,000 monthly retainer for non-litigation related expenses, but in November litigation fees relating to eight different lawsuits totaled $32,612.71.

Most of these bills involve a variety of lawsuits filed by Bill Pyle and others contesting the legality of the recent referendum election approving new development rules.

"We are in the unfortunate situation of defending what the residents voted for and it is costing us more than we can afford," Chaney said.

Pyle is a major financial supporter of Citizens for Responsible Growth, a political action group that opposed the changes to the city's land use plan proposed by another political action group, Save Our Little Village.

"I think these are frivolous lawsuits and they cost the city a lot of money," said Mayor Michael Finnerty, urging Davis to consider suing Pyle and others to recover legal costs.

The city has spent more than $320,000 in legal fees since 2004 and in just the past four months, bills for both regular and extra-legal services totaled more than $136,000.

The commission's nonpublic "shade" meeting will be held Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, Davis, the city's attorney, promised he would examine his law firm's bills to find ways to further reduce expenses. The firm was hired last summer after the previous city attorney resigned.

"To be candid, our firm has put in a lot more hours into general representation than we are compensated for," Davis told the commission. "The first few months, the hours were horrendous."

When Chaney called for a cap on the amount of travel and the cost of hotel rooms charged by members of Davis' law firm, the discussion became testy.

"The firm is not going to agree to a cap on those expenditures," Davis told Chaney. "If you want to find another city attorney, fine. We do a lot of business in the state and we don't have to be here."

Chaney shot back that there was "no need to take that attitude" and asked Davis to "work with us to control costs."

She said she is "looking under every rock" to find ways to reduce the city's legal bills.

At one point, Finnerty said Chaney was "trying to micromanage" Davis and said her call for spending caps could "jeopardize the city's relationship" with Davis' law firm.

"I don't think it will," Chaney said. "They are making $50,000 a month and they are going to quibble over a hotel room? I don't think so."

St. Pete Beach wrestles with cutting legal bills 12/20/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 23, 2008 11:32am]

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