For the past 16 months the city of Santa Ana has spent more than $25,000 on a search for a city attorney to replace Joseph Fletcher who retired (or was fired) in December 2010. Almost every meeting of the city council has had an agenda item for closed session to discuss the employment of a new city attorney. Throughout this time, we have been led to believe that there was an ongoing search for a new city attorney to join the ranks of city employees. Apparently, this was a ruse.
At Monday night’s city council meeting, the ruse was revealed with the approval of a contract with the law firm of Best Best & Krieger LLP. The contract is worth up to $325,000 per year and names Sonia Rubio Carvalho as the city’s first-ever female Hispanic city attorney. According to the city’s press release Carvalho will work in “a unique hybrid position aimed at saving the city thousands of dollars in the long-term. Carvalho will be a contract employee but perform all the duties of an in-house city attorney, which will save the city from paying her health and retirement benefits.”
There’s really nothing unique or hybrid about the position other than the fact that a contract employee will be supervising the city’s in-house pool of seven deputy city attorney’s and staff. The unique twist here is that the $325,000 contract is not the result of the regular city contracting process. That process requires contracts of this size and scope be subject to the city’s competitive bidding process. No Request for Proposals (RFP) was ever issued for this contract. There are numerous law firms in Southern California that provide City Attorney Services on a contract basis. It is likely that a RFP would have likely given the City Council several options to consider.
Though I loath to give her any credit, I have to give a tip of my hat to Mayor Pro Tem Claudia Alvarez, who had substantive objections to the process and the selection. Alvarez objected to the lack of the competitive process resulting in the same firm that represented the City of Bell to supervise the operations of the Santa Ana City Attorney’s office.
Alvarez was chairing the meeting of the council due to the absence of Mayor Miguel Pulido (why does it seem this guy always misses the controversial votes?). Her five other colleagues voted in favor of the appointment while Alvarez voted against. They cited the savings of about $30,000 in costs due to the City Attorney not being directly employed by the city. While that may sound good, the devil is in the details.
The details are that the city is paying $166.67 per hour for Carvalho’s services compared to $136.54 per hour for Fletcher’s. Based upon the calculations of city staff the contract will save $30,000 in benefits costs. Adding that in to Fletcher’s salary, the city was paying $150.96 per hour for 2080 hours per year. Carvalho will be paid $166.67 per hour for 1,800 hours per year. In addition, Carvalho will be able to direct, at her discretion, up to $25,000 in legal service to here employer, Best Best & Krieger LLP. This even though Santa Ana employees seven deputy city attorneys in-house.
This scenario reminds me a lot of the scenario that got the City of Anaheim in hot water last year regarding a similar arrangement with their Building Division Director Scott Fazekas, a contract employee. According to an investigation by Voice of OC reporter Adam Elmahrek, which ultimately led to Fazekas resigning his position, “records show that in nearly two years while Fazekas was Anaheim’s building division head, Fazekas’ firm went from receiving 8 percent of the city’s plan review business to more than 80 percent. All told, Scott Fazekas & Associates has billed the city for at least $18,954 since he took over the division.”
The only difference here is that the City Council is authorizing the additional work ahead of time, awarded to Best Best & Krieger LLP, under a category separate from the city attorney role. A skeptic might conclude that the real reason for the advance approval is to authorize additional costs under a different category in order to conceal the actual costs for the city attorney position.
Sonia Rubio Carvalho, based upon all the information I’ve found so far, appears to be a well qualified and talented individual. Her expertise in the area of Brown Act compliance alone, will be a welcome addition to city operations. But the process used by the city leads us to an indisputable bottom line.
The city of Santa Ana has hired the same firm to supervise their staff of attorneys, that represented and signed off on the corrupt actions of former City of Bell officials. The city has made its decision without the benefit of a competitive bidding process and it is questionable whether the city will save any money at all.
Yet the City Council still holds on to their contention that they are not the City of Bell. Such is life in the Banana Peel Republic of Santa Ana.