Town of Blythewood not transparent with legal fees

BLYTHEWOOD – Some Blythewood council members and an attorney don’t think town residents should know how much of their money is being spent on costly legal bills.

On Monday night, council members voted 4-1 on second reading of the $5.06 million annual budget. Councilman Donald Brock dissented.

Brock and Councilman Sloan Griffin voiced concerns about ballooning legal costs without seeing a suitable breakdown of legal fee line items.

Blythewood budgeted $200,000 for legal bills this fiscal year, but the budget doesn’t illustrate how that money is being spent with any specificity.

“I’m in the dark. All I know is we got litigation,” Griffin said. “The attorneys work for us. The council hired the attorneys. What I’m hearing is I can’t even see what we hired them to do.”

Other council members shrugged off transparency concerns, fearing greater openness might hamper the town in ongoing legal cases.

Mayor Bryan Franklin directed Town Administrator Carroll Williamson to consult with town attorneys to “figure out a plan to release whatever information they deem appropriate or, if it’s not appropriate, tell the council why so we can move past this.”

Jay Bender, an attorney and media law expert, said only line items containing confidential information can be shielded from view.

“An entry such as ‘filed documents’ would not be privileged,” he said.

Legal fee debate turns heated

Both Brock and Griffin pressed for a more detailed breakdown of legal fees, including tasks town lawyers performed as well as the exact salary of town attorney Pete Balthazar.

Brock said efforts to obfuscate legal costs stood on shaky legal ground and would wind up costing taxpayers even more money.

“Why would you need to continue to rack up legal bills when all you have to do is have our town attorney redact the information and send it out to whoever wants to see it?” Brock asked. “If Mr. Williamson sits down with three attorneys at $450 an hour, it’s going to run us another $1,500.”

Griffin objected to legal fees not being itemized, but ultimately voted for second reading because he didn’t want to vote against the employee cost of living increases included in the budget.

The Voice recently requested an itemization of Blythewood legal bills through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), with any necessary redactions of privileged information, but Town officials instructed Attorney David Black to refuse that request.

At Monday night’s meeting, some council members and the town attorney said the records shouldn’t be released because they contain confidential information.

“The town is invoiced, I think, on a 30-day basis. Those bills are attorney-client privileged,” Balthazar said. “Obviously the amount that has been incurred by the town is probably public information.”

Brock pushed back, saying his own requests for detailed legal expenditures have gone unanswered. He said the town could still release the documents and itemized dollar amounts to the public with appropriate redactions.

“We’ve been asking for the last 18 months to see these invoices,” Brock said.

Balthazar denied receiving requests from the council, but acknowledged council members can see the information.

“I would think anybody in the audience could see them if you redact those tasks,” Brock said.

Balthazar didn’t rule out that possibility.

“I would imagine if we got a FOIA request that we’d have to cross that bridge when we got to it,” Balthazar said. “That may be the case.”

Cocktail napkin FOIA

Councilman Rich McKenrick said members of the public could extrapolate the data from un-itemized budget figures instead of seeking more specific data through the FOIA.

Williamson said Balthazar’s salary is roughly 25 percent of the town’s budgeted legal fee amount of $200,000. McKenrick suggested taxpayers and the media use math to figure out the rest.

“I posed this to the media last year,” he said. “If you want to know the amount, take the $200,000 – whatever we spend – subtract Mr. Balthazar’s salary and put in your article the balance is what the outside legal expenses are.”

Brock blasted McKenrick’s idea, saying it doesn’t comply with state law.

“That is very unscientific and lacks transparency, point blank,” Brock said.

“The transparency that’s being asked for could be detrimental to this council’s case,” McKenrick replied. “I would be opposed to that information being released.”

“It’s public and it is subject to FOIA,” Brock countered. “Whether or not you are opposed is moot.”

Brock went on to pick apart McKenrick’s math formula, pointing out that the town merely budgeted $200,000 for legal fees. He said the actual expenditure could be more or less.

“Twenty-five percent of the budgeted amount ($200,000) is allocated to Mr. Balthazar’s salary. It does not mean Mr. Balthazar was paid $50,000. That just means it’s budgeted for $50,000,” Brock said. “To use the back of a cocktail napkin – 75 percent of what’s spent is paid to outside attorneys – that’s false. That doesn’t tell you anything. It only gives you a ballpark estimate.”

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