Friday, May 6, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Bastrop legal fees continue to mount

The city of Bastrop continues to generate considerable legal fees, but not at the rate reported earlier today in the Monitor. Jo-Christy Brown, the city’s go-to outside counsel for many issues, has not billed the city since March 1, so her bill of nearly $473,000 remains unchanged. Nevertheless, the city continues to spend money on lawyers at a rate far higher than other Central Texas cities of a similar size, with a yearly legal bill of more than $1 million.

The city of Bastrop has spent more than $294,000 on legal fees during the past three months, including nearly $102,000 for Jo-Christy Brown, its go-to outside counsel for many issues. That brings the total legal fees for the city of fewer than 8,000 people to more than $1.2 million since Jan. 1, 2015.

The city paid William C. Bundren, the Frisco lawyer who has been wrangling with developer Robert Leffingwell and a group of property owners from the Pine Forest subdivision in a complicated lawsuit. Bundren has received nearly $74,000 $56,301 from the city since Feb. 1.

According to city records, that figure includes more than $33,000 paid to the attorney on April 21 for litigation dealing with the Pine Forest property owners who are trying to extricate themselves, and their property owners association, from the lawsuit. Bundren represents not only the city of Bastrop but also Bastrop County and Bastrop ISD in the dispute.

Prior to the April payment, Bundren had been paid $216,884 between Jan. 1, 2015, and Feb. 11, 2016, for work on the Pine Forest case, according to city records, bringing to nearly $290,900 $274,000 the total he has received in the past 16 months.

The city is paying all the legal fees at this point for the county and the school district, but it expects those fees to be repaid when the lawsuit is concluded and the city can sell the property involved in the litigation.

Gary Schiff, the one Bastrop City Council member who has tried to convince the city manager and his colleagues that they need to look at hiring their own city attorney, has expressed his frustration over the high legal fees Bastrop has paid.

Schiff declined to comment specifically on the Pine Forest lawsuit on Thursday, but regarding the city’s legal fees, he told the Austin Monitor, “Everything that we’re doing is excessive, and I tried to change (things), but I, as one person, cannot change things.” Schiff indicated that there was little he could do at this point except express his frustration because he has gotten no support from his Council colleagues.

Schiff said he expects the city manager to come up with a plan for dealing with the legal fees in a different way in Fiscal Year 2017.

Bastrop has also paid Austin law firm Terrill & Waldrop more than $110,000 in the last three months for work related to a well permit at the State Office of Administrative Hearings, according to city records. Attorney Kathryn Holton, who works as a prosecutor at Bastrop’s municipal court, has received about $4,000, and the law firm of McCreary, Veselka, Bragg & Allen, which performs collections for the city, has been paid a little more than $4,000.

The Pine Forest lawsuit has been occupying Bundren as well as lawyers for the other parties involved in the case in a Bastrop courtroom this week. Bill Aleshire, the Austin attorney representing three property owners in units 7-12, said he expects the hearing on his clients’ request to have their property owners association severed from the lawsuit to conclude on Friday.

Neither Bundren nor Bastrop City Manager Mike Talbot responded to a request for comment from the Monitor.

Aleshire pointed out that Bundren’s fees could be much higher than city records currently show because once lawyers get into court, “the meters start whirring,” he noted.

Aleshire concluded, “The local governments are not only abusing their powers over homeowners who don’t have anything thing to do with the contract dispute, but they’re wasting tax dollars, affecting all the taxpayers for legal fees.”

The overall Pine Forest lawsuit is expected to go to trial in June.

Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=609290

This story has been changed since its publication to fix a math error. The total legal fees are now more than $1.2 million, not $1.3 million as originally reported.

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Bastrop: Bastrop is a city and the county seat of Bastrop County. It's located about 30 miles southeast of Austin

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