Council members push colleagues to lift veil of secrecy

City Council members Joan House and Harry Barovsky got no clarification Monday on the council’s reasons for hiring a high-priced labor relations attorney. But they did persuade Mayor Walt Keller to reveal the attorney’s total estimated fees, at around $7,500.

Keller has previously said attorney Nancy McClelland, a partner in the law firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, was retained to perform personnel evaluations. But her hourly rate of $420, combined with her extensive experience representing employers in job-related lawsuits, has prompted speculation that she was hired for a far more serious matter.

Because McClelland’s work is related to personnel matters, the council, by law, is not permitted to discuss certain details outside of its closed session. Yet even behind closed doors, House and Barovsky are apparently still confused about McClelland’s work for the council.

“I’ve had a number of people ask me what it’s all about, and I shake my head and say, ‘I don’t know,’ ” Barovsky said. “. . . [E]ven within closed session, I still haven’t figured out what this person is doing or is going to do.”

For the first time, Mayor Pro Tem Carolyn Van Horn and Councilman Tom Hasse spoke publicly on the subject, and each disputed House’s and Barovsky’s assertions that they do not know why McClelland was hired.

“This whole conversation is extremely embarrassing because all of us were in executive session,” said Van Horn. “This is a personnel [matter] . . . and you’re making quite a party here.”

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Monday’s discussion followed a motion by House to develop a budget for McClelland. “The public has a right to know how much we’re spending and why we’re spending it,” said House. “We should not make budget decisions behind closed doors.”

Hasse said he felt it was a matter for the Administration and Finance Subcommittee, but House, as a member of the committee, said she could not determine how many hours McClelland would need to perform her work because House still does not know what McClelland’s tasks are.

“What am I going to sink my teeth into?” asked House. “I’m going to sink them into a blank page. It’s like serving dinner with no food in the house.”

With the majority of council members leaning toward sending McClelland’s budget to the subcommittee, Barovsky added a request for an accounting this week of McClelland’s bill to date. He said, by his estimate, she had earned approximately $5,000. Keller said he agreed with Barovsky’s guess, and he added that he thought her total bill would be around $7,500 for her six three-hour meetings with the council.

Finance Director Bill Thomas asked whether he should pay the bill from the litigation budget, but City Attorney Christi Hogin was visibly irritated by the suggestion to take money from her department.

“It won’t come from my budget,” she said.

In perhaps the first signal that McClelland’s current work may be a prelude to a showdown with Hogin, Barovsky said paying McClelland’s bill out of the legal budget “is like asking Hogin’s department to tip the executioner.”

The purpose and scope of McClelland’s work is likely to come up at each council meeting. Barovsky said he plans to press the subject until Keller, Van Horn or Hasse adequately explains to him and to the community what her purpose in the city is.

“This is public funds, not our petty cash drawer,” he said.

Dial-A-Ride

In other matters, the council adopted the recommendation of the Public Works Commission to revise the city’s Dial-A-Ride program for elderly residents. The main change will be a registration system to verify that users are actually residents of the city. People living outside of Malibu had until recently been regularly using the shuttle program.

The council also approved the commission’s recommendation to explore establishing a shuttle program to transport local teens stranded without a ride and residents too intoxicated to drive.

‘False Burglar-Alarm’ Ordinance

The council implemented a “false burglar-alarm” ordinance in order to recoup some of the costs associated with sheriff’s deputies’ response to false alarms.

City Manager Harry Peacock said the deputies responded to 1,950 false alarms during 1998. Each response cost approximately $80.

Residents will now be permitted two false alarms per 12-month period. On the third such alarm, a resident will be charged $175. “It’s a local version of the three-strikes-and-you’re-out,” said Peacock. The fee drops to $59 for any subsequent false alarm during the annual period.

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