City spending on legal fees reached almost $160,000 by the end of August, expanding an already bloated expenditure that long ago exceeded the annual budget. The city was already over budget at the end of May, and the spending has not slowed.
With three months left in the year, the city has spent twice its allocated amount in the 2018 budget of $80,000, according to a report provided by the city attorneys in Monday’s City Council packet.
The attorney also provided a breakdown of costs in July and August, assigning dollar values to broad categories of work and specifically identifying money spent on assignments given to the attorneys by the council.
The city owes its bloated legal spending to a variety of causes, including labor negotiations, personnel problems and the recall petition against Council Member Suzanne Towsley, but “council directed” work is the largest contribution by far in both July and August.
In July, the attorneys identified $21,311 of spending on “council directed” assignments alone. In August, the number was lower, at $13,711. Both numbers completely overshadow legal spending in 2016 and 2017, when the highest monthly legal bills never exceeded $11,000, according to data provided by the attorneys.
Also in July, the attorneys told the council that the city had spent $40,000 on issues that attorney Holly Wells characterized as intragovernmental disputes – efforts by one branch of Seward’s government to discredit or outmaneuver another. At the time, Wells was not specific about which side – the council or the administration – was responsible for the fees.
Wells and fellow attorney Katie Davies have both said the various issues that have troubled the council–administration relationship had been litigated and re-litigated so many times that it was near impossible to determine who should be saddled with the blame.
The issues in question have run the gamut from accusations of nepotism and fraud to apparent threats to sue. The attorneys have several times addressed – in executive session and at least one memo – a February statement by former city manager Jim Hunt that he had retained an attorney, according to statements made at public meetings by attorney Will Earnhart.
Not all of the council-directed work has focused on these conflicts, however. The council has also asked the attorneys to do routine work, such as preparing and reviewing ordinances, or special projects, such as determining whether the council could form an area-wide utility board.