Taxpayers on hook for $100k for city council’s lawyers in open meeting violations

Victoria officials expect taxpayers to foot the bill for up to $100,000 in anticipated attorneys’ fees for four city council members found liable in March for a combined 38 intentional violations of the Open Meeting Law.  But not if the citizen watchdog group behind the civil lawsuit can help it.

“The City of Victoria should not pay private counsel to represent officials engaging in intentional and unlawful conduct like that proven here,” Alan Kildow, the citizens’ attorney, said in a May 25 letter. “The individual Defendants are not entitled to that personal benefit at taxpayer expense, particularly when the expense is weighed against the impact on the City budget and the residents of the City of Victoria as a whole.”

The western Twin Cities suburb has already burned through $400,000 in legal fees provided by an insurance policy. The Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust municipal liability policy costs $12,500 per year, but the city has maxed out its coverage, according to City Manager Laurie Hokkanen.

City attorney Robert Vose argues taxpayers are obligated to pick up where the insurance policy left off by paying the elected officials’ legal bills from here on.

“None of the allegations rise to the level of malfeasance in office, willful neglect, or bad faith,” Vose said at the May 9 city council meeting. “There isn’t any question about that. In other words, there is no doubt that a city is required to defend council members that are faced with the allegations that our council members are faced with.”

Besides holding the council members personally responsible for 38 OML violations, Carver County Judge Janet Cain attributed 54 more violations to the City Council as a whole for failing to record, close and properly notify the public of meetings.

In a biting March 31 decision, Cain weighed the councilors’ service to the community against “a comprehensive showing by Plaintiffs of a lack of accountability to the public by Defendants in their lack of adherence to the OML.”

As part of the civil court judgment, Mayor Tom O’Connor and City Councilors Lani Basa, Jim Crowley and Tom Strigel were ordered to pay a total of $7,800 in civil fines out of their own pockets.City Council Mttg

The 13 residents who sued their elected officials two years ago have spent thousands of hours combing over more than 30,000 pages of city documents in the unusual civil case being litigated pro bono by Alan Kildow of DLA Piper.

City officials have indicated a desire to move on, but they’re bracing for an expected appeal by residents in what’s shaping up to be a landmark government transparency case tied to the building of a new city hall and public works building in 2013.

“I have asked staff to provide recommendations as to where we will cut budget in order to cover these legal fees, as long as this ridiculous quest continues,” City Councilor Jim Crowley said at a May 9 meeting.Citizen Watchdogs

A contingency fund for legal fees first surfaced at a March 21 Finance Committee meeting. Members discussed budget cuts and other options for funding up to $100,000 for legal expenses, including the possibility of raising taxes.

“…There is a need to outline the costs to the city for the litigation process. It’s a fact that the City has to deal with and it may drive up the tax rate,” Finance Committee meeting notes state.

But Kildow says the public never got an opportunity to weigh in because the controversial issue was not discussed by the full city council. He maintains state law arguably precludes reimbursement and should be left up to a judge to decide.

But city attorney Vose shows no sign of backing down.

“The City is not reconsidering the decision to defend OML claims because the insurance coverage limits have been reached. Continuing to provide such defense is legally authorized,” Vose said in a May 24 letter responding to Kildow.