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Bastrop hoping to deal with legal fee problem

Tuesday, July 26, 2016 by Jo Clifton

When they meet Tuesday night, Bastrop City Council members are scheduled to discuss and perhaps take action on the employment of their regular outside counsel, Austin attorney Jo-Christy Brown, as well as the ordinance governing the city’s relationship with its lawyers.

Council has wrangled with Brown and with former City Manager Mike Talbot, who resigned, at least in part, because he disagreed with Council’s insistence that the city hire an in-house lawyer. At the same time, residents have expressed outrage over the amount of money the city has paid to outside counsel.

Since the May election, a majority of Bastrop’s City Council has seemed highly dissatisfied with the cost of Brown’s services and the mounting costs of hiring other outside counsel to represent the city in litigation. Mayor Ken Kesselus has put some ordinance changes on tonight’s agenda that make clear Council’s intention to hire an in-house attorney and perhaps one or more assistant city attorneys.

Bastrop paid Brown $20,734 on July 7, bringing her total so far this year to more than $150,000. City records indicate that she received more than $400,000 in legal fees from Bastrop in 2015.

City records also show that the city of Bastrop paid attorney William Charles Bundren more than $184,000 on June 28, bringing to $458,000 the amount paid Bundren between Jan. 1, 2015, and July 1, 2016, for his work on a lawsuit against the developer of the Pine Forest subdivision, Robert Leffingwell, the brother of Austin’s former Mayor Lee Leffingwell. Other parties in the lawsuit include a property owners association and several individual landowners.

Bundren also received more than $16,000 in June from work on two other lawsuits involving the city.

Bundren also represents Bastrop County as well as the Bastrop Independent School District. However, the city of Bastrop is taking care of all of the legal fees at this point under an interlocal agreement among the three governmental units, according to County Judge Paul Pape.

Pape said the lots in the Pine Forest subdivision are in foreclosure and that once the lawsuit is over and the lots are sold, the county and the school district can collect back taxes. They plan to pay the city back for paying the legal fees with those taxes, he said.

In addition, attorney Noe Reyes, who handles the county’s delinquent tax collections, is providing his services to the county at no additional charge, Pape said. Of course, once the lots are sold, Reyes’ law firm, McCreary, Veselka, Bragg & Allen, will receive a percentage of all of the taxes gathered, he said.

The lawsuit has been ongoing for nearly three years, according to Pape, who said he is hoping that a summary judgment hearing scheduled for Wednesday will lead to a speedy resolution of the lawsuit. That seems highly unlikely. If, as expected, the Bastrop government entities win this round, Leffingwell and his allies will almost undoubtedly appeal the matter.

Attorney Ben Wetmore is representing Leffingwell, and attorney Bill Aleshire is representing three property owners who entered the lawsuit to try to get their property owners association severed from the one representing the rest of Pine Forest.

Wetmore told the Austin American-Statesman back in April that there was “no way” the taxing entities could hope to collect the fees that Bundren had collected at that time on the residential lots. Aleshire and Wetmore have both said the entire legal process has been a waste of taxpayers’ money.

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