Attorneys representing at least a dozen public agencies logged 65 hours at taxpayer’s expense on a single day in May 2012 trying to settle a lawsuit over who pays for the Palm Beach County inspector general.
That six-hour mediation session cost taxpayers more than $11,600. And no settlement was reached.
As the dispute lumbers deep into its second year, West Palm Beach has maintained that the legal costs are low because staff attorneys do most of the work. Still, the public cost of the suit over whether the county can assess cities to pay for the inspector general has reached at least $430,000, a Palm Beach Post analysis of agency billing records shows.
With the county’s decision Wednesday to reject the latest settlement offer and prepare for trial, the case could go on for years, with legal fees growing substantially as lawyers for 17 public agencies devote time to strategy sessions, court preparation, hearings and appeals.
“It really depends on how far it goes,” said Jennifer Gardner Ashton, an attorney with Corbett, White and Davis, which represents five of the 14 cities still in the suit. “This very well could go to the Florida Supreme Court.”
At stake, city attorneys say is the right to be free from county interference and double taxation. The county says that after voters in 2010 extended the inspector general’s reach to all 38 cities, the cities have to share in the costs.
The Post’s analysis took into account billing practices at Palm Beach County, the county clerk’s office, the inspector general and the 15 cities that sued in November 2011, including Wellington, which dropped out of the suit in April 2012.
No one attorney acts on behalf of all the cities. Rather, each city has its attorney keep watch over the work of the others. Since not all of the costs are documented in public records kept by those agencies, no complete accounting is possible.
For instance, Inspector General Sheryl Steckler launched an ill-fated effort to break from the county’s legal representation, assigning her $100,000-a-year in-house lawyer to the task for most of nine months. No records exist to record his hours, although he estimates he spent about half his time on the case, and Steckler cannot provide an estimate of her office’s work.
Similarly, West Palm Beach City Attorney Claudia McKenna does not track her hours, although she has been a leading voice among the city attorneys. While she would provide no estimate of her time and would not respond to requests for comment, her staff keeps a precise accounting of their work.
West Palm Beach staff attorneys, not counting McKenna, logged 493 hours during the lawsuit’s first 18 months, city records show. One assistant city attorney, Doug Yeargin, even logged eight hours on Christmas Day.
Plugging in the hourly salary of the city’s attorneys, the only cost method the city provided, puts the city’s share of spending at $30,000.
Boca Raton said its city attorney and a senior assistant worked on the case, but they have no mechanism to track their hours and could not estimate even how much time they spent. Delray Beach and Riviera Beach provided estimates of hours worked without itemized backup.
County staff attorneys track their hours and have logged more than 1,100 hours on the suit. County Attorney Denise Nieman does not itemize her time but estimated she devoted 25 hours.
The county puts a value on its attorneys’ time at $125 an hour, a higher rate than salary alone to account for overhead, putting its cost through April at $140,000. If the same rate were applied to West Palm Beach’s attorneys, the city’s work would be valued at $61,000.
No matter how the attorneys’ time is valued, Nieman pointed out, the suit has another cost: pulling valuable resources away from other matters.
“For every minute that we dedicate to this, we are taking away another minute that could have been spent on something else,” Nieman said. “It is just a matter of reprioritizing.”
While some cities and the county keep costs down by using staff attorneys, 11 of the 15 cities initially in the suit have relied on outside attorneys, who in most cases are under contract with the city at a discounted rate of between $150 and $200 an hour.
Fees for Clerk and Comptroller Sharon Bock’s outside counsel, Holland & Knight, reach as high as $400 an hour.
Bock entered the suit after freezing city payments to the inspector general and fearing she could be held liable if the court ruled in the cities’ favor and found her office released money incorrectly. “Entering this suit was not a choice. It was an obligation,” Bock said.
The cities were expected to pay $1.6 million, about half the fledgling IG’s office total budget. About $1 million of that would have come from cities in the suit.
Bock said about 40 percent of her legal costs stem from the fight over the inspector general’s right to represent herself in the litigation. The clerk hired Holland & Knight because of its expertise in the Florida Constitution.
On the clerk’s behalf, Holland & Knight has put in 421 hours, mostly logged by partners paid at $335 and $400 an hour, for a bill of $146,000 through April. The figures do not include the time of the clerk’s staff attorney.
For the 11 cities whose outside attorneys are charged with tracking the case, the fees for keeping up with strategy sessions, motions, hearings and settlement talks totaled $72,000. Corbett, White and Davis — the attorney for Palm Beach Gardens, Tequesta, Palm Beach Shores, Manalapan and Mangonia Park — has been the most involved.
But the 150 hours the firm attributed to the lawsuit doesn’t include everything, said Ashton, who is one of the lead attorneys on the case. She said her firm has donated more than 100 hours of its time to keep costs down.
The billable hours ratcheted up in anticipation of a November hearing on the cities’ motion for a judge to decide the case. Lawyers from at least 11 agencies packed the courtroom, billing 46 hours to the public that day, in what Tom Baird, attorney for Lake Park and Jupiter, termed a show of the issue’s significance to the cities.
It failed when the county raised legal objections that forced the judge to delay the day of reckoning. The case plowed on, with attorneys billing 300 hours for $80,000 since.
And no end is in sight. If the governments do not settle, the suit is likely to push on for years: The county only now is setting in motion the legal steps that must be taken to result in the case moving to trial.
Staff researcher Michelle Quigley contributed to this story.