NORWALK — The City Council on Tuesday decided to rebid the contract of its longtime city attorney, J. Kenneth Brown, after being advised that Norwalk is probably spending tens of thousands of dollars a year more than it should on legal fees.
The decision stems from an ongoing effort by city administrators to reduce spending and balance the city budget, City Manager Richard R. Powers said.
The city paid the law firm of Brown, Winfield & Canzoneri about $230,000 for legal services during the fiscal year that ran from July, 1987, through June, 1988, Powers said. This year, the city paid the firm $130,000 between July and October alone, he said. Based on cost comparisons with several area cities with similar legal demands, Powers said Norwalk should be paying about $100,000 a year.
"The costs seem inordinately high to (the council members) and they want a comparative evaluation of legal services," Powers said after the council made the decision in an executive session.
The city manager said, however, that he had no specific examples of overcharging or bills for unnecessary legal services on the part of Brown's firm. And Powers said city employees may have contributed to the high legal bill by unnecessarily seeking legal advice. The city manager said he has recently restricted the number of employees authorized to seek such advice, for which Brown's firm bills the city.
Brown, who has held his post for more than 19 years, said he and his firm have provided the city with proper legal services at a reasonable price.
'Never Been Questioned'
"It's never been questioned in 19 1/2 years," he said. "We try to be cost effective and have been."
The council members also refrained from criticizing the services provided by Brown.
But Councilwoman Grace F. Napolitano said the legal costs "weren't minute, to say the least. If we can get competitive bidding we'll be all right."
Over the years, the council has routinely extended the agreement with Brown without seeking bids, Powers said. The city pays Brown $110 per hour for the first 40 hours of work during a monthly billing period, Powers said. Additional charges range from $105 to $147 per hour, depending on the type of work requested.
Powers said the council directed him to seek bids from Brown's firm and others in the next 30 days.
Brown said he did not know whether his firm would submit a bid.
Hired Last July
The council hired Powers last July with an eye toward spurring the city's redevelopment program. Powers had earned a reputation as a talented redevelopment manager in Paramount, his previous employer. He immediately began reorganizing city staff, released three key officials in the previous administration and froze hiring to reduce spending.
Powers said the legal contract is just one of about $7 million in contracts the city holds with private firms and public agencies, such as Los Angeles County. When feasible, all those contracts will be put out for competitive bidding when they are due to expire, he said. Other contracts, such as the city's $5.5-million agreement with the Sheriff's Department for law enforcement service, will be reviewed.
Powers hopes to squeeze savings from the existing contracts and achieve other spending cuts to reduce a $3.2-million spending deficit that threatens to draw off reserves this year. About $1.5 million of that is budgeted for one-time capital improvement projects, including a buffer wall for portions of the Santa Ana Freeway. Powers said he is more concerned about eliminating the remaining $1.7-million deficit for general operating expenses.
On Tuesday, he told the council that there are 20 unfilled employee positions in various departments. Powers said the city can shift employees and maintain the same level of services without filling those jobs. That would save the city about $600,000 a year, he said.
Councilman Robert E. White advised Powers to research the matter further to ensure that the city can maintain service levels and not incur additional costs.
In addition, general fund revenues are expected to be about $1 million more than initially projected, Assistant City Manager Sanford M. Groves said. Most of that increase is expected to come from sales tax revenue, which is coming in faster than anticipated, Groves said.
The city began the fiscal year with a general fund reserve of about $11 million, Groves said.