corruption

Supreme Court Rules on Disclosure of Legal Fees

By Donna Westfall – January 8, 2017 with credit to Dixon’s Independent Voice, published January 6, 2017 – 

Unlike Crescent City, where a ballot measure to vote on the 20% sewer rate increase was defeated by nearly 60% of the voters; the City of Dixon filed a lawsuit to prevent the voters  from exercising their constitutional right of an initiative to reverse an increase in sewer rates.  

This is very reminiscent of 2010 Crescent City, wherein Judge Morrison ruled that the initiative to repeal the doubling of sewer rates would not go on the November 2010 ballot after the City sued me and my husband. We lost that round, but won the most recent 2016 election.

Dixon voters then wanted to know how much of their taxpayers money was wasted on that frivolous lawsuit and were denied. Here is an example of one determined person’s actions that made a difference.  That one person is Ourania Riddle.

Government agency’s legal bills for a case that has been resolved are public record, a divided California Supreme Court ruled last week.

The California High Court voted 4-3 to OVERTURN a Court of Appeal decision which said attorney invoices are not subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act. The majority held while invoices concerning pending and current legal matters may not be disclosed, invoices related to matters that are closed may be required to be released. “Invoices for legal services are generally not communicated for the purpose of legal consultation,” Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar wrote for the majority. “Rather, they are communicated for the purpose of billing the client.”

The court majority agreed that bills for ongoing litigation could reveal a government agency’s legal strategy and should remain confidential until the case is resolved.

Last year the City of Dixon cited the Court of Appeals decision and refused to provide Ourania Riddle with the cost of attorney fees paid to the city attorney and the outside law firm of Cota Cole LLP representing Suellen Johnston, the departed City Clerk in the lawsuits filed by the city to prevent the citizens from voting on the initiative to repeal sewer rates.

Undaunted Riddle talked to Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California who was involved in the case. When Eliasberg asked her to write an “amicus” letter to the CA Supreme Court requesting review of the appellate April 2015 decision, she gladly complied.

Riddle pointed out that the City of Dixon filed a lawsuit to prevent the voters from exercising their constitutional right of an initiative to reverse an increase in sewer rates “They are spending OUR MONEY and they are denying us, THE TAXPAYERS who foot this bill, to see the invoices explaining how much of our money are wasted on this frivolous lawsuit,” Riddle wrote to the court.

Apparently, this letter had a significant impact. The Court took notice because they seldom receive amicus letters from citizens. “Your friends in city government cannot cite the case any more as a reason to deny your PRA request. It was all you, Ourania, all you!” ACLU attorney Eliasberg wrote to Riddle.

Terry Francke, General Counsel of Californians Aware said that “the court’s opinion did not decide or even discuss, a request under the CPRA for records of actual fee payments to outside counsel, which typically identify the matter billed for but do not specify the nature of the work done.

“There should be no legally authorized delay in finding out, by a CPRA request, how much the agency is actually paying its outside counsel within a given period,” Francke said.

Francke pointed out that “this decision leaves unclear the status of law firm invoices for legal work having nothing to do with “pending and active” litigation – e.g. a memorandum discussing the potential impact on the agency’s policies or practices of new case law, legislation or regulations.”

 

 

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