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City sued for $34,000 in legal fees

Decision to pay up or move forward coming Monday
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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The City of Auburn is being asked to pay $34,125 in legal fees revolving around a failed June ballot measure the city council pushed for. On Monday the city council will decide whether they will pay the fees or fight them in court. Measure A was a proposed initiative placed on the June ballot that would have made Auburn a charter city, rather than a general law city. When ballot arguments for and against the initiative were printed the city objected to the wording of the argument against the charter. A lawsuit was authorized by City Clerk Joe Labrie and filed in March asking a Placer County Superior Court judge to find that statements made in the ballot argument and rebuttal against Measure A were false and misleading. Judge Colleen M. Nichols ruled on April __ that the authors of the ballot argument and rebuttal against Measure A ? James Earp, Hank Gonzales and the California Alliance for Jobs ? did not need to change their ballot argument or rebuttal. Now Earp, Gonzales and the California Alliance for Jobs are countersuing the city for legal fees incurred during the lawsuit. In court documents filed on March 21, they ask for a judge to rule in their favor on the basis that the legal fees arose from their exercise of protected free speech and defending a lawsuit which lacked merit. Voters ultimately rejected the proposal to become a charter city in the June 5 election. The city has spent a total of $38,186.18 on legal fees related to the Measure A lawsuit through its May bill for services, according to City Attorney Michael Colantuono. He added there may be a small bill for June as well. That figure does not include the $34,125 in legal fees the city is now being asked to pay. Auburn Mayor Kevin Hanley announced at a city council meeting on June 11 that Colantuono had decided not to represent the city in the matter anymore for ethical reasons. He added that the city council has moved forward with hiring new legal representation, Porter Scott, in the matter. After the March lawsuit was filed Labrie said he changed his position on the lawsuit, ballot arguments and Auburn becoming a charter city. He said he did that because he believed proponents of the charter were also making false and misleading statements about potential savings on sewer projects if the charter were to pass. Colantuono said the ethical conflict arose when the city council and Labrie gave him conflicting instructions related to the countersuit. Based on attorney-client privilege, he said he could not say what those instructions were. As the city attorney, Colantuono said he has an obligation to represent the city council and the city clerk. ?He gave me directions with respect to the attorney?s fee motion that I did not think I could follow without my violating my duty to the city council, so rather than choose one client or the other ? I have a duty to both of them ? I just got out of the middle,? Colantuono said. If Labrie wouldn?t have originally authorized the lawsuit against the authors of the ballot argument and rebuttal against Measure A, then legally any registered voter in Auburn could have filed one, Colantuono said. Labrie added that he believes the city should pay the attorney?s fees asked in the countersuit and move on. ?I said, ?This is crazy.? They lost and now they don?t want to pay the attorney fees for the other side. Get over it,? Labrie said. ?If you are going to fight this, it?s only going to cost you more money.? Hanley said the city council would decide if they would pay the fees in closed session at the council meeting scheduled for June 25. ?The city has the option to go forward in the belief that we provided a good brief on why the three arguments in the ballot argument were false,? Hanley said. ?The other option is to say, ?let?s just be done with it and pay their fees.?? He added that Labrie?s decision not to take responsibility for his original decision in filing the lawsuit caused the city to have to hire new legal representation in the case and consequently is costing it more money. According to the city?s contract with Porter Scott that is pending approval at Monday?s city council meeting, the law firm charges $225 an hour for partners, $185 for associates, $95 for paralegals and $95 for law clerks. He said the city council could have, and likely would have, sued without him, but Labrie decided to put his name on the lawsuit and go forward. ?No one forced him to make that initial decision,? Hanley said. ?So his decision is causing the city to go through this, spend more money on this new attorney and go through all this time wasted because he did not do his job and sign on to this and then be personally responsible.? Labrie said that while nobody forced him to authorize the lawsuit, he believes he was deceived. ?I believed what they said about the false and misleading statements at that time. I was deceived into going along,? Labrie said. He added that he had been at every council meeting, so he didn?t feel the need to do any additional research at the time. Todd Stenhouse, spokesperson for Preserve Auburn ? ?No? On Measure A, said the group had no further comment on the lawsuit. A court date for a motion hearing is currently scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on July 3 at Placer County Superior Court in Roseville. Reach Sara Seyydin at saras@goldcountrymedia.com, or follow her on Twitter @AJ_News.