When something bad happens to the city, one firm usually benefits

The city resists contracting out police and fire but embraces contracting legal services

■ Chronicle Staff Opinion

If your contractor sent you a bill for $1 million more than you expected, would you keep them on the job for another year? Probably not. The city of Hemet has no such problem. The city’s fiscal year 2007-08 had a $2.4 million deficit, according to city records. The city had budgeted only $1.2 million for legal fees at the start of the year but wound up spending nearly twice that amount by year end. The total charged by City Attorney Eric Vail’s firm, Burke, Williams and Sorensen was some $2.2 million. By year end that year, the General Fund deficit was nearly $2.4 million. Since a mid-year appropriation for additional legal fees was approved, technically the city attorney was not “over budget.”
Vail explained the higher legal costs at the time by saying they were caused by major projects and work from his office that required more billable hours, according to an article in the Riverside Press Enterprise. Well, do you question your surgeon after he opens you up and says, “Whoa! There’s a lot more WORK here than we figured before we took a peek under the skin.”
After all, when the doctor’s bill is more than the estimate, do you ask for a refund? Did you even care about getting an estimate in the first place? Or are you just relieved that someone was competent enough to take care of the problem?
Though Vail’s legal fees way exceeded the original budget estimate, Burke, Williams and Sorensen did not refund any of the extra costs. Vail merely said, “We didn’t seek a rate increase during that period,” when he was quoted in the 2008 Press Enterprise article.
We would think not! He also pointed out that his firm does not “self initiate” work.
The city of Hemet received an update on its fiscal year 2016/17 budget in December. Again, legal costs exceeded the budgeted amount. According to the document presented, the fund was in the red $147,455. When the city council began addressing the fiscal year 2017/18, it was agreed that a serious reduction in legal costs was a must.
The fiscal year 2017/18 budget initially had $425,000 more allocated for the city attorney than what the city eventually approved when they adopted the budget. Councilwoman Bonnie Wright expressed the most concern regarding the high legal costs.
Vail has represented Hemet as its city attorney for 13 years. During that same period, the city has gone through about nine city managers, if you include interim and acting managers.
Folks, where is the music for musical chairs?
During his tenure as Hemet City Attorney, Vail has concurrently occupied that same position for Temple City (2009 to present) and Cathedral City (2016 to present) and as assistant city attorney for Banning (2004-2008). Vail also represented the city of Hemet in a “friendly four agency negotiation to adjudicate Hemet/San Jacinto Basin,” according to the Burke, Williams and Sorensen website.

• Additionally, he is general counsel for the following agencies:
• Redevelopment Agency (its successor)
• Hemet Community Land Trust
• Sunline Transit Agency (2015 to present), and
• Hemet Housing Authority

He is special counsel for:
• Orange County Development Authority
• Housing Authority, County of San Bernardino
• City of Moreno Valley
• Redevelopment Agency of the City of Riverside

His retainer from the city of Hemet is in excess of $32,000 per month (this is not a typo). This is your hard-earned tax money at work. Compound that with the salaries or stipends Vail receives from all the other councils and agencies he serves, and it literally blows the average guy or gal’s mind who might be lucky enough to bring home a paltry $50,000 a year.
The city of Hemet recently hired an additional lawyer to be the city prosecutor. Could that be due to the city attorney’s being unable to fulfill all of his duties because of time spent away from Hemet with other clients? Further, the city also contracts with another law firm for code enforcement services.
Vail oversaw the approximate $600,000 outlay to settle Police Chief Rob Webb’s involvement in the 2012 death of Anthony Norman, and the lion’s share of that went for legal fees deposited directly into his firm’s collective pocket. Vail’s firm was paid almost three times what the victim’s family received. Maybe that’s why lawyering is such a good business.
Nevertheless, we make the uncomfortable observation that whenever anything bad happens to the city of Hemet, there is one firm that generally benefits: Burke, Williams and Sorensen—and our own city attorney—Eric Vail.
If you are scratching your head wondering why the city of Hemet always has its proverbial eye on the next new tax, it just might be because Hemet’s legal expenses, which run into the millions of dollars and invariably are usually way over budget by year end, take a serious bite out of the city’s revenues— revenues that are covered by tax dollars paid for by citizens with a median household annual income of about $35,000. And how do you control a budget when the department head keeps on billing regardless of overruns?
It’s the Chronicle’s collective opinion that something here doesn’t add up, and we wonder why the city doesn’t have a single full-time city attorney on salary instead of a series of expensive legal consultants charging by the hour who can devote only part of their time to the city’s unique needs. The city has fought tooth and nail against contracting out police and fire services, so why are we contracting out legal services?
What do you think? Send your comments to: editor@thevalleychronicle.com.

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