Embattled city attorney is let go

DOWNEY - A divided City Council voted 3-2 last week to fire city attorney Ed Lee, who has been the subject of criticism for his role in legalizing the bloated salaries of administrators and council members in neighboring Bell.Four days after the vote, Lee announced he was resigning as a partner at Best Best & Krieger. Council members who voted for termination of its contract with Best Best & Krieger praised Lee but said they were concerned of "guilt by association." Lee had served as Downey city attorney since 2007. The city's contract with Best Best & Krieger paid about $500,000 annually, city officials said. "The issues in Bell are not the doing of Ed Lee or BBK, but due to their involvement I'm worried Downey will not receive the representation needed now or in the future," Councilman Roger Brossmer said at the special meeting July 29. The final vote was 3-2, with Mayor Anne Bayer and Councilman David Gafin in favor of continuing with Best Best & Krieger. "I understand there are issues in Bell, but they are not here," Gafin said. "I'm sorry to see this happen." Bayer, who mistakenly voted in favor of firing Best Best & Krieger before a re-vote was ordered, said that July 29 - the date the vote was taken - was "a sad day for Downey." "This is the United States. We are presumed innocent until proven guilty," she said. According to the city's contract with Best Best & Krieger, the law firm may be terminated "at any time and without cause" with 30 days notice. Retired city attorney Charles Vose is expected back to help Downey as its transitions to a new law firm. Lee was not available for comment after the meeting, but on Aug. 2, in a statement released by Best Best & Krieger, Lee said he was leaving the company so he could concentrate on "assisting [Bell] through this crisis..." "I am confident that my reputation will be restored in time as events unfold and all of the facts are revealed," he said. "Until that happens, my concern for my colleagues at BB&K and their clients must prevail." The Bell city council, however, decided in closed session late Wednesday not to rehire Lee as city attorney. Best Best & Krieger also announced they were terminating its contract with Bell for legal services but will "assist the city in its cooperation with the ongoing investigations and its vigorous pursuit of all legal actions that will be necessary to resolve the crisis and restore public confidence in their municipal governance." Downey's contract with Best Best & Krieger paid the law firm $500,000 last year, city officials said. The L.A. Times reported that Bell paid the law firm $243,000 last year. The Times first reported the exorbitant salaries of Bell administrators, including nearly $800,000 in annual pay to the city manager, and more than $100,000 per year to most city council members. On Monday, the newspaper reported it was preparing a court filing to force the city to release more public documents related to employee compensation. Downey officials were quick to respond after the Bell scandal broke. The city issued two press releases last week that included the base salaries of city administrators. City manager Gerald Caton earns about $220,000 per year, about average for a city of Downey's size. Assistant city manager Gilbert Livas earns about $200,000 plus an additional $3,600 car allowance, and police chief Rick Esteves takes home $195,000 per year. Downey city council members receive monthly stipends of $697.35, while the mayor is paid $821.61 per month. Council members also earn $30 per community development commission meetings, with a cap of four meetings per month. Council members receive no health or retirement benefits. In a statement last week, Councilman Mario Guerra said he "resented" any association between Bell and Downey. "To be put in the same breath is an embarrassment to our City staff, City Council and more importantly, to our citizens," Guerra said. "We are a great, conservative and ethical city and any association with them and us is wrong and I resent it."

********** Published: August 5, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 16