When Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson got the bill for July from the city’s new attorney, “I about fell out of my chair.” Commissioner John Rogers was “sticker-shocked.” Commissioner Elbert Tucker said he got more calls about it than about any issue in his five and a half years on the commission.
It was $23,859. (See the itemized bill below.)
That’s not much by other local governments’ standard. Palm Coast’s budget for its city attorney is $400,000. Flagler County’s is $520,000. But Palm Coast has more than 25 times the population of Bunnell, and the county includes Palm Coast. Bunnell’s annual budget for its legal services is a mere $60,000.
It was also the first bill from attorney Lonnie Groot—or his Lake Mary-based law firm, Stenstrom, McIntosh, Colbert and Wingham.
“The work that was done was all work that was required to be done, nothing out of the ordinary,” Groot said at last week’s Bunnell commission meeting, after the matter was brought up. “And all time wasn’t charged, I can tell you that, so I’ve got nothing to explain unless you have questions.”
The commission hired Groot in late June after its long-time attorney, Sid. Nowell, resigned. It was part of the re-shuffling that’s been remaking the city administration in the image of the commission’s new majority—Tucker, Rogers and Commissioner Bill Baxley. Tucker and Rogers had grown disenchanted with Nowell over time and had tried hiring Groot in 2011, but a different majority prevailed at the time. When Baxley was elected, Nowell’s days were numbered.
Last Monday, Tucker, who had championed Groot’s hiring, wasted no time casting the $24,000 bill in terms that barely veiled his criticism of the former attorney.
“It’s been necessary to do what the attorney has done to save Bunnell money on two particular cases that we would have lost or most likely have trouble going to court and prevailing, and that’s not free,” Tuckers aid. “We need to pay for that service. There’s been other things that needed to be done that are being done by Mr. Groot. I don’t think he’s outrageous or unreasonable, relative to what he’s done, to save the city of Bunnell money. It may loom like a large figure, and it is a large figure, but it’s going to save money for Bunnell in the long run to have the work done the way it’s been done in the past two weeks, three weeks.”
Three issues in particular have run up the bill: the city’s continuing purchase, with county government, of the troubled Plantation Bay utility; a lawsuit from Waste Pro, the trash removal company, challenging Bunnell’s contract with the Flagler County School Board to be the school district’s trash contractor; and the settlement of a three-year-old lawsuit from Palm Terrace, the 120-lot mobile home community, which challenged Bunnell’s decision to stop servicing the community’s sewer pump and to install a master meter for the entire community rather than carry on its custom of reading water meters from each home.
In Groot’s breakdown of July’s cost, the Waste Pro matter accounted for 13 percent of billed time, Palm terrace accounted for 24 percent, and Plantation Bay, 8 percent. The three conbined accounted for 45 percent of the bill.
The Palm terrace lawsuit was “on the verge of going to mediation, on the verge in October of going to trial,” Groot said, and that case had to be “analyzed from a completely different perspective.”
Groot also spent quite a bit of time trying to negotiate a new contract with City Manager Armando Martinez, at the commission’s direction, but with little success as Martinez and the commission remained far apart on terms.
But an itemized bill (see below) also showed that attorney consultations with commissioners and staff—innumerable phone calls, innumerable emails, voice mails, the reviewing of documents sent by staffers and commissioners, most of which Groot’s firm billed at minimum increments of a quarter of an hour each, though Groot said a lot of time was not billed, amounted to $7,363—or an annual equivalent of $88,300, far exceeding the entire budget of $60,000.
Rogers, one of the more liberal users of the attorney’s time among commissioners, said: “We’ve got more information in the past month from this attorney than I’ve had in two and a half years on this board as to what the day to day goings on and the happenings in this city. There was a lot of stuff that was done absolutely wrong, and he in my opinion, he’s trying to correct it and doing it right.”
Robinson suggested that emails and phone calls to staff and commissioners could be reduced by taking advantage of Groot’s time in Bunnell, when he’s there.
Groot defended the bill. “This city,” he said, “needs sophisticated, in depth, professional legal services, and I’ll provide that, nothing more and nothing less, and if the city doesn’t need, want those, I will gladly not provide them. But if the city needs them, I will gladly provide them.” And he warned: “I can tell you I think that this city needs more legal services, not less. I’m not afraid to say that. So that being said I hope that at least puts things from my perspective before the public.”
It’s not at all clear that the legal bills will go down in the future.
that was done absolutely wrong, and he in my opinion, he’s trying to correct it and doing it right.”
“Hopefully as we get these lawsuits cleared and we get Plantation bay closed, hopefully the services will be less intense, although that may not be. I don’t know,” Robinson said.
“You get what you pay for,” Baxley said.
“I understand that, you do get what you pay for, that is a correct statement,” Robinson said. “But when your budget is $60,000, the first bill is $23,000, there needs to be some adjustments.”
The commission has not figured out how to make those adjustments yet.