GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Since 2009, the township has paid almost $1.3 million in attorney’s fees and, in 2013 alone, half a million dollars in lawsuit settlements.
Officials say enough is enough.
“That could have been another road we could have paved or another township employee we could have paid — $1.3 million is a ridiculous amount of money,” Councilman Jim Gorman said. “I was hoping this would have slowed down by now.”
The township has a budget of $24 million and for the last three years has had to devote a growing portion of that budget to climbing legal fees. although this year’s bills show signs of stabilizing, Township Manager Arch Liston said.
Liston said the township has spent $97,000 on lawyers this year.
Legal fees appeared highest between 2009 and 2012, a period when then township solicitor Michael Blee was paid $559,701, according to township records.
“Mike Blee’s number is high, and I believe because of the amount of lawsuits that were facing the town and what he was involved with in fighting all of them,” Councilman Jim McElwee said.
In addition to the lawsuits, though, Blee received a flat monthly payment for his services, and charged the township for each council meeting he attended and also for regular meetings with the township manager. The township's new solicitor, Michael Fitzgerald, who took over last year is not paid a flat fee each month, Liston said.
From 2012 to 2013, Fitzgerald has been paid $214,087 by the township for legal services, records show.
“We’ve also restructured how we pay the attorneys,” Liston said. “Previously, we paid the solicitor a flat fee and then more for other work that was done. When I came in we changed to paying attorneys an hourly rate of $135 an hour.”
McElwee said he believes there are too many attorneys on the township payroll. In January, council approved the appointments of attorneys Jerry Dasti, Fitzgerald, Joel M. Fleishman, William G. Blaney and Thomas G. Smith. Dasti will serve as the conflict attorney, Fleishman as bond counsel, Blaney as labor attorney and Smith as the township’s tax appeal attorney.
“But right now, we’re also trying to protect ourselves. Maybe we’re overcompensating a little bit, but I guess it’s better to be safe than sorry,” McElwee said of the township’s group of attorneys.
It’s no secret that the township has faced repeated litigation over the last several years. Litigation can easily cost a municipality upwards of $75,000 to $100,000 to defend itself, Liston said.
“I’m not saying who was right and who was wrong, but I think we need to put people in these township positions who will act professionally to avoid situations like this and lawsuits,” McElwee said.
According to a list of legal bills received from the clerk’s office, the township incurred $61,809 in attorney fees connected to a lawsuit filed by former clerk Lisa Tilton who alleged sexual harassment and other illegal actions. In addition to the attorney fees, the township also paid out a $250,000 settlement to Tilton earlier this year.
The township then settled another lawsuit in January for $250,000 with township employee Jody Smith, who sued in February 2012 alleging that officials improperly eliminated her position of land-use administrator and zoning officer through the distortion of facts regarding the township Construction Office. In Smith's lawsuit she alleged that officials tried to "cover up, conceal and deceive the public" in connection with cutting costs in the budget in 2011 in connection to dissolving her position.
It isn’t just lawsuits that have gotten expensive for the township.
Over the last several years, an influx of Open Public Records Act requests have also made for an increase in legal bills, township financial records show.
In last year’s $24.2 million budget, council increased the amount of money earmarked for legal fees as a result of the number of OPRA requests during the previous year. In 2011, the township responded to about 380 requests, compared with about 240 requests in 2010. In 2012, the number of requests increased to more than 400, officials said.
Liston said the amount of money being spent on reviewing OPRA requests has stabilized this year, but they still continue to come in.
The township increased its amount for legal fees in 2012 to $200,000, up from $135,000 in 2011. In the 2010 budget, the line item for legal fees was $115,000.
The township paid out two settlements for OPRA request violations in 2012, totaling $12,167.
Council again budgeted $200,000 this year for legal fees, Liston said.
“We’re on budget for this year. Things have definitely slowed down and we’re moving in the right direction,” Liston said.
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