It is nearly July and we understand that one of the lawsuits between the city of Tustin and the Tustin Unified School District are due for trial in Orange County Superior Court. So, we thought we would check on the status and the current cost-to-date for the taxpayer. You may remember, in a conversation I had late last year with Mayor pro tem, Al Murray, the city sent out an official press release, saying the lawsuits were costing the taxpayer nearly a million dollars. At the time the press release came out a year ago, the city claimed TUSD had spent about $600,000 on the lawsuit and the city had spent another $350,000 “defending itself.” Total cost? $950,000. Not being satisfied with spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a power play by Jerry Amante, the city subsequently sued the school district again for not opening a new school for the promised purpose.
So, it should come as no surprise that, in the past year, the two entities did indeed surpass the million dollar mark. What may surprise you is that the city, in a recent request for information, informed me their legal fees for the lawsuits has risen to $810,000. That is an increase of $450,000 just to defend two lawsuits for the past year. Most of the cost, $740,427.98, has been billed by Woodruff, Spradlin & Smart, the city’s contract law office that furnishes City Attorney, David Kendig. Keep in mind this is only for one issue and not for general services. I recall reading in the proposed 2012-2013 budget, legal services were budgeted at $600,000 for the entire year. We’ll see how that works out.
The rest of the billing has gone to Remy Moose Manley, an environmental law firm located in Sacramento that appears to work mainly for government entities. They billed the city $61,380.74. Smaller amounts went to public relations firm and a firm that specializes in school facilities planning. We heard that the city is planning to use a different law office to push their latest lawsuit, where venue was changed to Riverside courts because the city did not think they could get a fair shake here in Orange County. No billings from that firm yet.
What is really interesting is that, since the latest offer and response by the city and the district respectively, there has not been any progress. In April, when the first of the lawsuits was scheduled for trial, the judge decided to continue it until after his vacation. So, both sides have had the opportunity to approach the other with further mediation. The issue has become so contentious between the two, neither side is talking to the other. So, we have to wonder what the city council is talking about in closed session when they list the lawsuits.
The upcoming trial, if there ever is one, will be the turning point. TUSD is strong in their belief they do not require permitting from the city of Tustin. If they win at trial, and that is likely given all the facts of the case, both sides should sit down and settle the remaining issues. One of the points in the city’s November offer to the district was that both sides would pay their own legal fees. Apparently, Jerry still doesn’t get the fact that it is the taxpayer who will be on the hook for both parties. That in itself should prompt them to continue attempts to resolve their differences. Unfortunately, it looks as if they are fast headed to the two million dollar mark and beyond, with the only clear winners being the lawyers.
Because of Jerry Amante’s shenanigans, there have been other indirect costs as well. Remember when we got a new city manager in David Biggs? Things looked bright and promising for the city and for a quick settlement to the lawsuits. Apparently, that’s where Biggs and Amante collided, however. The result was a fast exit for Biggs, who now heads up the city of Carson and who took a sizable chunk of the Tustin general fund with him in a golden parachute. And, we got stuck with the anachronistic Bill Huston again until Jerry could find the right yes man in Jeff Parker. That marriage seems to be working for the time being. Parker was given the added incentive by our fiscally prudent city council of a start date that allows him to take the most generous pension available, even though he did no work for the city during that time. Go figure.