Legal bills: What we get for our money

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 9, 2004

While City Hall has not winced at paying big bucks for outside legal work, one should ask if the present legal strategies of the City make any sense?

The reason that an active legal strategy for a public entity is so very important is that litigation can be and is very expensive and distracting, especially when you are found wrong.

The City has been on the wrong side of issues too many times, which is not only a waste of valuable resources, but also bad government.

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Perhaps one of the best example of such failed conduct, is the difficulty one has in just obtaining public information under the Free of Information ACT (FOIA) from the City.

Under such an exercise, it becomes apparent that City compliance with the ACT is only the last resort and in many cases, and under threat of litigation.

There have been several recent issues that the City Council and senior city staff have decided to litigate.

These included issues that clearly were a bad idea to take to the courts and in retrospect have resulted in very expensive lessons learned.

Whenever a sensitive or complex issue has arisen and many seem to, the city has chosen too often to hire outside legal help and litigate.

While some of these questions may be outside of the expertise of our City Attorney’s Office, it has become very apparent that many issues and questions should never have been pressed, at all.

The reason that the citizenry should demand a legal strategy to ration government’s use of the courts is that such costs are great.

When spite is the purpose of litigation rather than a sagacious use of such to enforce principal, we all suffer.

We suffer obviously the outright costs, but also the lack of confidence in government and the objectives and expertise of those who subscribe to be our leaders.

Leaders should carefully choose their battles with direct purpose and principle, not emotion and temper to teach some supposed offender a lesson.

This last point is what separates government litigation from private rights to litigate.

With almost unending resources, limited only by the tolerance for such foolery by the electorate, the government should always apply rational measures to insure that litigation meets a strong need, is the absolute and last recourse, and just makes good common sense.

This small checklist seems to be totally unknown in City Hall and is suffered at great expense in dollars spent and objective purpose lost.

The latest example of this problematic policy is attached to the emotional issue that boiled out of the City Manager’s Office recently, concerning the failed first attempt at the Marina and bulkhead at Constant’s Wharf.

While this bulkhead was to be finished some time ago, it will now be paid for twice or more.

This untested design was to save over one million dollars, but now obviously was no bargain.

After quite a lot of the work being done, it was readily apparent that the design was flawed as the bulkhead started to buckle and fail.

This performance lead to a work stoppage and the firing of both the engineering firm and the contractor.

The real questions to raise are: Why has there been no accountability of the City Manager for such a failure, in the attached oversight of this expensive City project?

Was this duty a prima-fascia portion of the culpability that will be defined in this lawsuit?

This unfortunate series of events has lead to a process where the City Manager asked for and received over three million additional dollars, to hire a new design firm to build a more conventional bulkhead.

This amount is over one million dollars more than the first bulkhead attempt that failed.

While I do understand the argument that the city was possibly snookered, the real questions that should be asked include: Where was the city’s oversight and project accountability?

Is this an example of the City trying to buy a bulkhead on the cheap, without continued oversight, and getting caught short?

Was the push for the lowest bid yet another example of; getting what you paid for? Just from these simple facts, there seems to be a significant amount of city culpability attached to the management and failure of this project.

The oversight duty that the city staff had in this case seems to be ignored.

Is this another example where methods other than litigation might lead to a better outcome?

While there are pressures to get the best possible price for public projects, it is very apparent that lower prices and bids can and do lead to lower quality outcomes or failure.

Litigation may get us something out of the design firm, but when we tally up the staff time and costs, legal fees, and other connected expenses, we stand to lose more than we gain from this course of action.

This legal strategy may allow our City Manager to deliver a pound of flesh to the City Council as payment for approval of an additional $3.1 million dollars spent to build the bulkhead we should have got the first time.

Perhaps it is time to look at how the city oversees projects and if such complex contracts for untested designs recommended by the Finance Office really make any sense…

Roger Leonard is a Suffolk businessman and regularly writes on city government matters for the News-Herald. He can be reached at