By Jesse “Jay” Sowell, Dana Point
There have been many articles lately in both the Dana Point Times and the Orange County Register about the city’s losing battle against the California Coastal Commission and the Surfrider Foundation concerning locked gates accessing Dana Strand beach through the multi-million dollar Headlands development. According to the Orange County Register, the city has until Jan. 29 to respond to the Coastal Commission’s demand that the gates be removed. To date there have been four lawsuits, all of them litigated for Dana Point by City Attorney Patrick Munoz, who lost all four cases. In the latest ruling, the Superior Court’s Statement of Decision refers to the city’s urgency ordinance justifying the gates as a “pretext for avoiding coastal program obligations,” and that there “was not, in fact, a nuisance or prospective nuisance at the time the Nuisance Abatement Ordinance was enacted.” And who paid the legal bills for this foolhardy battle over access to the county-owned beach through the exclusive development? Presumably you, the taxpayer.
We don’t know exactly how much has been spent on this litigation to date, but considering usual hourly rates for prestigious firms such as Rutan and Tucker, Mr. Munoz’s employer and the Newport Beach law firm representing the city of Dana Point, I would imagine this is not a small amount. The city’s financial report for Sept. 30, 2015, the first quarter in this fiscal year, was presented at the Nov. 17, 2015 City Council meeting without comment. Page 4 of this report refers to “city attorney” costs which were over $400,000 at the end of the first quarter, representing a 32 percent increase over the prior year and over half of the annual budget for fiscal year 2016. The council agenda for the Jan. 19 meeting contains a list of payments including another $183,830 in legal fees for October and November. So, with seven more months left the fiscal year, our city has spent close to $600,000, almost the entire annual budget for legal fees. Presumably, at least some, if not most, of these fees can be attributed to “Strandsgate.”
According to city management’s comments in the Sept. 30, 2015 financial report “most of the increase [in city attorney fees] is attributable to costs reimbursable to the city by outside sources.” In addition, there is another expense category called “Professional Services” which is $180,000 over budget, including, according to city management, $91,000 for “one time reimbursable services.” That seems to imply that part or all of the legal and/or professional fees for the Strand suits are actually being paid by another party. And who might that be? Dana Point city taxpayers have a right to know, especially since the beach in question is actually owned by the county and not the city.
A Freedom of Information Act request has been submitted to the city clerk asking three fundamental questions: What is the total amount of legal and professional fees attributable to the Strand lawsuits from 2008 to date? How much, if any of these fees are reimbursable by others? And, if any such costs are reimbursable, exactly who is paying the city’s legal bills?
We sincerely hope that the city did not engage in these expensive lawsuits, using not only a considerable amount of staff time and attention, but your tax dollars, if such lawsuits may have been pursued in the interests of other parties and not the city itself. Was our city attorney merely acting at the behest of “outside sources?” Stay tuned for answers.