Bunnell city commissioners may not entirely have been over the effects of the $24,000 legal bill they got from their new attorney, Lonnie Groot, for July, or the shock of receiving Groot’s resignation days later, after various commissioners voiced their displeasure at the bill.
Last week they got yet another shock to contend with. The August bill for Groot’s legal services totaled $35,426. The two combined bills total $60,000. That was the amount the city commission budgeted for legal services for the entire year.
At their meeting Monday evening, commissioners learned that for the year, they were $83,000 over budget in legal fees, having already spent the budgeted $60,000.
And there’s one more bill to go from Groot, for September, before his resignation takes effect. The bill is not expected to cut the commission anymore slack than the August bill did. It’s not clear how the commission will pay the bill, only that it will.
“I don’t know,” Mayor Catherine Robinson said last week after receiving a text informing her of the August bill’s total. “We have no choice. We have to pay the legal bill. The question is where do we get it.”
The commission voted 5-0 Monday night to pay the bill out of contingency. Next year’s budget is set at $00,000, but the commissioners may consider hiring their own, in-house attorney, after the idea was suggested to them tonight.
A 12-page breakdown of the bill (see below) points to billable hours related to litigation between Bunnell and the Palm Terrace Mobile Home Park as accounting for almost half the August bill: $16,665. Costs related to city staff and the city commission total $8,002 (evenly divided between staff and commissioners). Billing related to Bunnell’s acquisition, with Flagler County, of the Plantation Bay utility, came in at $4,125.
When commissioners discussed the first bill at a meeting in late August, they became aware of the extent of the billing that resulted from their own—and their staff’s—contact with Groot, and sought to take measures to minimize that. But the breakdown pre-dates that meeting, and shows again numerous costs attributed to phone conversations, emails and other meetings Groot and his office–Lake Mary-based law firm, Stenstrom, McIntosh, Colbert and Wingham—billed, from quarter-hour increments (the minimum) to lengthier segments, like the 90 minutes billed on August 6 for phone conferences with Robinson and Commissioners John Rogers and Elbert Tucker. One of the billed items is a “voice-mail to Commissioner Tucker,” illustrating to what extent Groot’s firm billed. On Aug. 8, a half hour was billed to voice mails and phone calls with Armando Martinez, the city manager, and a review of files involving Martinez.
The August 11 review of the commission’s agenda packet and emails to and from Sandi Bolser, the city clerk, were billed at an hour and a quarter, for a total of $206.25. (That meeting the next day lasted just over four hours, resulting in a $701 charge.)
Groot had told the commission that there was a lot of work to do, but none of the commissioners expected that the bills would be this steep. What he said was, there are issues in the city that I need to address, and when I address them, then I’ll bill you. So we had that conversation, and here we are,” Robinson said. “No one, I don’t think anybody, saw these bills coming.”
Elbert Tucker, who led the push to have Groot hired when Sid Nowell resigned after many years, defended the billing.
“He was doing what needed to be done, or the firm was doing what needed to be done. That’s the long and short of it,” Tucker said. “Now here’s the thing. I still have my notes from when we put out RFPs for the attorneys the last time. I still have those. I had them on two little sheets of paper. I’m going to put them on one sheet of paper and give them all to these folks who think his bill was too much. The cheapest attorney was $220. They went up to $300 an hour. Lonnie’s been lower, it was $140 an hour. If they had done the same work as what Lonnie did, it would have been twice the bill. They went up as high as $300.” He added: “We got the top notch for $140. It’s just unfortunate that they had to take the time to go over what needed to get done. They had to do that. It took time.”
Actuallt, Groot bills at a rate of $165 an hour, though that still places him lower than the other attiorneys Tucker said were on the list.
“The emails that Lonnie was sending were for information,” Tucker said. “Now if you called him and started discussing, the clock would start. But he would send 10 emails a day. That was for our benefit. We didn’t have to call him back. If somebody called him back it probably started the clock. But that’s not where all the money came from. The money came from going to all those lawsuits.”
Clearly, however, emails are listed on the breakdown as part of the billing.
Groot is working for the city until the end of September. His firm will follow through some of the work even after that date, such as the Palm Terrace lawsuit, “because there are things that were not done quite correctly and would have caused problems down the road,” Tucker said.
Commissioner Rogers, who had not seen a break-down of the bill when he talked about it Saturday (before the commission’s interviews of prospective city manager candidates) also defended the billing, even though he did not expect it to be that high. He said Flagler County’s legal department has rung up some $100,000 in legal costs attributable to the Plantation Bay acquisition alone. (The county’s fees for outside legal services for Plantation Bay have so far totaled $140,000, according to County Attorney Al Hadeed.)
Robinson summed up the matter, referring to Groot: “In his defense the first month there was some discussion back and forth and we actually had two meetings that he did not bill for, because I about had a heart attack when I saw that bill. I’m thinking, oh my God, I’ve spent an hour and a half with the man, and he didn’t bill for it. What he did in August I haven’t a clue, I haven’t seen it. But once that started with the emails and responding back and forth, unless it’s absolutely urgent, I don’t respond and I don’t call. But it’s a sad commentary to feel like you can’t. But again, if you have everybody calling and everybody responding—Mr. Nowell was very gracious, in that he didn’t bill for a lot of the discussions that he had with us. You could call him, you could text him, and he wouldn’t bill for that. He obviously understood the perils of city finances in our small city, and that’s what we’ve been used to for many years, so this was really culture shock when the first bill came in, and this one was just—and there’s more.”
The city commission meets tonight, and will presumably discuss the legal bills at some point. Tonight’s meeting will also reveal the commissioners’ rankings of the four city manager candidates interviewed Saturday, and possibly include the Skyped interview of a fifth candidate, who happens to be in Africa. There is a strong chance that the commission will try to pick a new manager tonight, but additional interviews of the finalists are also possible. The meeting is at 7 p.m. at the Government Services Building’s main chamber, and it is open to the public.