With Solvang’s legal fees topping $500,000 — significantly higher than previous years — the City Council has decided to appoint a committee in an attempt to quell the skyrocketing costs after 10 months.
On Monday night, the council approved another $57,000 invoice for the Santa Barbara-based law firm of Price Postel & Parma, where City Attorney Chip Wullbrandt is a partner.
That April 14 invoice included more than $46,000 chalked up to the COVID-19 public health crisis, but it did not itemize the services.
The legal fees for January through March 13 added up to $124,483, for a total to date of $444,483, including general fund, water and wastewater expenditures, according to a March memo to the council.
Wullbrandt justified the year’s legal expenses on additional costs related to the departure of staff — many of whom were forced out — including the city manager of five months, the administrative services director, the city attorney, the planning director and the city clerk plus recovery of assets the city claimed it owned from the Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau.
The justification also cited “the need to ‘catch up’ from many years of complacency and special relationship based operations.”
Mayor Ryan Toussaint and Councilman Daniel Johnson will serve on the ad-hoc committee aimed at creating cost control methods and budget recommendations for legal costs.
The mayor did not respond to a request for comment.
From the start, Wullbrant’s hourly rate of $335 and invoices have been higher than his predecessors.
For the 2015-16 fiscal year, the city’s legal fees under the prior city attorney amounted to $74,682 with slight growth until the city budgeted $80,000 for 2018-19.
In July, Wullbrant billed $74,000, a tally that would have meant more than 223 hours for an attorney. With 22 work days, that would mean about 10 billable hours per day.
By all accounts, Wullbrandt’s involvement in city business has far exceeded the typical role of a contract city attorney as he attended the state of the city address, rode in the Julefest parade and attends business openings.
On Monday, after talking about controlling city attorney costs, the council debated about tossing a topic to Wullbrandt to research.
“I just want to caution, since this item was earlier, we’re trying to control the costs of the city attorney,” the mayor said. “I love how this council always wants to say I want to control the costs of the city attorney, but then let’s throw all this stuff on the city attorney.”
At the March 30 meeting, the council agreed to budget $100,000 for legal services related to the public health crisis and $10,000 a month for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Councilman Johnson discussed curtailing services and creating a cap for legal fees, adding that Solvang most likely would not get reimbursed by the federal government.
Johnson suggested that “maybe Chip can’t be involved in every single thing,” saying his associates who charge less could be tasked for some duties.
“You’re not going to find an attorney who is going to do any sort of real work for $100 an hour,” Wullbrandt said.
“Dave Fleishman,” Johnson muttered into the microphone, referring to the prior city attorney.
“Dave Fleishman was even substantially more than that, and I just would note he was paid a monthly retainer by four cities,” Wullbrandt said.
That’s not uncommon for contract city attorneys to work for multiple jurisdictions or to have a retainer for a set number of hours, typically at its lower-than-normal rate.
“I’m not trying to knock on your abilities … and I don’t care what the public says regarding your fees because you’ve done a fantastic job. But I do feel we have a crisis. We’re trying to save money,” Johnson said.
Councilman Robert Clarke said he had received complaints from residents about money spent for city attorney costs and an out-of-town event-planning company hired to handle tourism services.
The high legal bill comes as Solvang laid off eight city employees, citing the public health emergency.
Wullbrandt chaffed at comments about his rate, and argued with people on social media when questions arose about the city’s increased cost for legal services.
He often touts the fact that he lives in the Santa Ynez Valley, so he doesn’t charge Solvang for travel costs.
Last year, Solvang’s longtime city attorney firm of Hanley & Fleishman resigned with a veiled jab at the council. A written statement noted a positive performance evaluation and that “the City Council majority is entitled to and should be served by a city attorney whose ethical standards and commitment to the rule of law more closely match their own,” Fleishman said.
Instead, they hired Wullbrandt, first on an interim basis and later gave him the job despite the fact that the hourly rate exceeded others who submitted proposals.