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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.

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About The Author Dana Point Times

comments (4)

  • This is a terrible comment on the disgusting ethics of our City Council. When rich developers and mega-bucks homes are at stake they put up gates and pass an urgency ordinance — even though they were later raked over the coals by the judge for basically making up stories about crime rates! At the same time, the La Plaza and Harbor areas have high crime and Doheny Village has been a pit for criminals, loiterers and transients for 30 years. Where are the gates in those areas? This Council really acts when the right people speak up. Wonder if those same folks who may be paying the legal bills for Strands also greased their campaign funds?? Hope we get to hear how much taxpayers (or their favored friends) spent on this waste of time keeping ordinary citizens off the beach. Recall these clowns. They don’t represent Dana Point citizens.

    • Jay , don’t let them slither away from these tough questions, like snakes under a fence.
      I have questioned this before. How in the world does our city council justify restricting the access of its own citizens to the beach (a county beach at that) .Spending our our own tax dollars to do it. Who are they serving?

  • Please let the public know the results of your FOIA request. Many people in Dana Point want to know for whose benefit the city spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars and undertook four unsuccessful court cases while fighting the Coastal Commission and the Surfrider Foundation. Maybe the benefited party is on the line to pay us back? What about any damages and the prevailing parties legal expenses? Are we exposed for that? Why did the city concoct an obviously specious ordinance and put so many city resources into a losing effort since 2008?

    It was probably good to be city attorney Patrick Munoz though because he got paid win or lose. Why didn’t losing these cases cause the city council to question his competency or the wisdom of being involved as a litigant? Is he accountable for anything?

    Maybe their objectivity was clouded by the campaign contributions the benefited party arranged for their campaigns. Should these councilmen be representing Dana Point residents or should we put people in our government who work for us?

    • I want to see some honest people run in November. None of the same tired old crowd backed by Brough and his cronies. We need fresh new candidates with no compromised histories, and NO special interests paying for their campaigns. I want candidates who pledge to be funded the old-fashioned way — by ordinary Dana Point citizens who want to be represented by an honest Council. If we get a Council that represents we, the people, who knows? We may also get to hire a new trustworthy City Manager who plays fair with every neighborhood (not just the swank hotels and Monarch Beach favorites) and a City Attorney who keeps us out of frivolous or concocted law suits while he rakes in the big bucks for his Newport law firm.

      What business did they have suing the Coastal Commission and Surfrider (a registered charity, for Petes’s sakes) to keep “dangerous” surfers off a County beach? The whole thing smells, and the cops were in on it too. Why weren’t they called to task for fabricating non-existent crime rates? The gates have been open for months now. Where’s all the crime at the Headlands? If you believed the police, it was the most dangerous area going and the gates were absolutely necessary to protect homeowners. Maybe the Council was too naive to ask the right questions, but we aren’t that dumb.

      No wonder the judge raked them over the coals. This was blatantly manipulative and dishonest. How can we possibly trust people who engage in these kinds of dirty tricks? They apparently only make $600 a month. Did they really sell their souls so cheaply? In the days of Henry Dana, we’d be mixing up the tar and gathering feathers!

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