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Hermosa Council to Quiz Attorney on Pay

August 09, 1987|KAREN ROEBUCK | Times Staff Writer

Hermosa Beach City Council members are complaining that City Atty. James Lough is charging the city more than his contract calls for, although some of them say the city is still getting a bargain.

Lough said in an interview that he was surprised that council members are concerned about his bills. He would not discuss them, however, except to say that the city is getting his services at below the market rate.

"I'm not going to argue with my council in the newspapers," he said.

The council will discuss the fees Tuesday.

At issue is a new agreement between Lough and the city that took effect in May.

Under the contract, the city pays Lough a $3,700-a-month retainer in exchange for 80 hours a month of "ordinary legal services," which are defined in the contract as giving legal advice, writing documents, attending City Council and Planning Commission meetings and holding office hours at City Hall.

Beyond the 80-hour limit, the city pays $100 an hour for work done by Lough and $45 an hour for work done by his paralegal. Like the old contract, the new one provides for expense reimbursement and higher fees for "extraordinary legal services," such as court appearances.

Under the previous contract, effective from March 26, 1986, to last April 30, the city paid Lough $3,500 a month for an unlimited amount of ordinary services.

Some council members said the current retainer is supposed to pay for 80 hours of work performed by Lough, but so far the 80 hours has been divided between Lough and his paralegal, according to bills the attorney submitted.

'A Mockery'

"At this rate," Councilman Jim Rosenberger said at a recent meeting, "we have made a mockery out of our attempt to work out an agreeable--a mutually agreeable--alternative to what the previous agreement was."

Council members acknowledged, however, that the breakdown of the work was never discussed when the contract was renegotiated last spring at Lough's request.

The paralegal accounted for 37.1 hours of the retainer in May and Lough worked the rest of the hours. In addition, he billed the city $1,020 for attending a council meeting and holding office hours May 26, both at the $100-an-hour rate. He charged $840 for performing the same services June 23 after the paralegal accounted for 33.6 hours of the retainer that month.

At the meeting when Rosenberger publicly complained about the bills, Lough told the City Council: "I don't see any problem that was not discussed, but I am open to suggestions for any changes. . . . My office is trying to work out a system to cut the costs. I believe we're still way below market rates. You couldn't get those rates any place else in town."

City Attorney Since '85

Lough (pronounced Loh ) has represented the city since January, 1985, first while with the firm of Ochoa and Sillas and independently since April, 1986, when he left the firm.

Mayor John Cioffi agreed that Lough has given the city good rates.

"The old contract, in my estimation, was too good to be true. . . . There's no way you can expect somebody--an attorney--to continue to work for those kinds of fees." He estimated that Lough made about $50 an hour under the previous retainer agreement.

Lough estimated that he received only $37 an hour under the previous contract.

Lough said he is surprised by the council's complaints and questions but said he is unconcerned because he is confident that the problems can be resolved. He said what upsets him is that the complaints about his contract will be discussed publicly at Tuesday's council meeting.

Closed Session Scheduled

At Lough's request, the council had scheduled a closed session July 28 to discuss the contract, but The Times asked that the session be open to the public and press. The newspaper said that under the Brown Act--the state's open-meetings law--some personnel discussions may be closed but not discussions about independent contractor agreements.

Lough's contract specifies that he is an independent contractor, not a city employee.

Lough said he will allow the contract to be discussed publicly at Tuesday's meeting because he does not want to subject the city to "frivolous litigation" by The Times.

"I'm not going to be a sacrificial lamb and I'm not going to make my client one either," he said in an interview. "You guys are just pushing a case and you're going to win just because you're the L. A. Times.

"The issue here is that I'm being deprived of my statutory rights by the L. A. Times," he said.

Like an Employee

When Rosenberger first raised the issue of Lough's fees last month, Lough cut off the discussion by saying: "Under the Brown Act, the city attorney is considered like an employee and has the right to have terms and conditions of that contract discussed in closed session and so it is my choice and not the council's and my choice is to discuss it in closed session."

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