Why the big-time lawyer?

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The mystery of the high-priced outside counsel continues.

Members of the City Council who voted to retain employment attorney Nancy McClelland were pointedly asked Monday why they hired her. The three council members who cast the vote — Mayor Walt Keller, Mayor Pro Tem Carolyn Van Horn and Councilman Tom Hasse — offered no reply.

Keller previously said McClelland was needed to assist the council in performing evaluations of the city’s high-level personnel. But her hourly rate of $420 as a partner in the top-notch law firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, combined with her usual practice of representing employers in job-related lawsuits, has prompted speculation that she was hired to handle far more serious matters than personnel evaluations.

Keller’s explanation apparently still does not satisfy Councilman Harry Barovsky, who previously proposed another top law firm, O’Melveny and Meyers, to perform the evaluations for substantially less money. At Monday’s meeting, he asked the three council members to explain their reasons for hiring McClelland.

“I think it’s incumbent on those council members who voted to spend $420 an hour on an attorney to state their reasons to this community . . . why they’re willing to spend that kind of money,” he said.

Resident Marissa Coughlin also asked the three council members to explain their reasons and to justify the expense.

“I used to work for Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, and I know the quality of the law firm and the lawyers,” she said.

The hiring of McClelland resurfaced as an agenda item because Councilwoman Joan House said she wanted to ask McClelland about her career history and her work for other clients. But House said McClelland had answered most of the questions in closed session on Monday and planned to answer the others in a second meeting on Tuesday.

Rather than answer Barovsky’s and Coughlin’s questions, Keller moved on to the next agenda item, over the vocal objections of Coughlin, who called out, “Mr. Mayor, Don’t I get an answer?”

Keller rapped his gavel, and proceeded, but Coughlin got the last word.

“Oh great, that’s why my dad left Yugoslavia and its socialist government.”