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City’s legal spending tops $2 million over five years

  • Written by Briana Gerdeman

LAWSUITS$2,191,179.92.

That’s how much money the city of Woodinville has spent on legal expenses in the past five years, according to documents obtained through public records requests and information from city Finance Director Jim Katica.

The figure includes several big lawsuits, as well as legal advice and research for the city and the retainer paid to City Attorney Greg Rubstello for attending city council meetings.

Land use issues are often especially large and contentious, Katica said.

"At times, I’m surprised at the number of lawsuits, but when people feel aggrieved, they have to do what they have to do," Katica said.

According to the city’s budget posted on its website, legal expenses made up 3.6 percent of operating expenditures in 2011-2012, and are projected to make up 4 percent of the 2013-2014 operating expenditures.

And where does that money come from? Most money for legal expenses comes from the city’s general fund, which is mostly made up of sales and property tax, Katica said. However, for a lawsuit dealing with a construction issue, the city could use money from the real estate excise tax to pay legal costs.

Of the five-year total (from January 2008 to May 2013) of $2,191,179.92, about a quarter of that — $581,093.10 — was spent on the city attorney’s retainer.

The amount he earns varies by month based on the number of hours he spends at city council meetings, but Katica noted the city has tried to cut down on expenses by not requiring the city attorney to attend study sessions.

Much of the rest was spent on lawsuits on several main topics — the roundabouts on SR 522, Woodinville Village wine development, development in the Wellington neighborhood, union disputes, and the tent city that took up residence at a Woodinville church.

"We would rather use city dollars for something other than attorneys’ fees," Katica said. "... However, we have to defend the city."

He also noted that for the person who initiates a lawsuit, it doesn’t cost extra to sue additional people or organizations. That means Woodinville is sometimes named as a defendant in cases that don’t have anything to do with the city.

"You go for the deep pockets, if you’re the plaintiff in a lawsuit," Katica said.

FEES

THE LAWSUITS

Rights for Roundabouts

The city’s project to build three roundabouts on SR 202 in the tourist district required lawsuits to get right-of-way from several property owners, including James Gorman of Hollywood Vineyards, Apple Farm Village shopping center, and the old Hollywood Schoolhouse.

A lawsuit with Puget Sound Energy was also associated with the roundabout project, Katica said. When PSE didn’t complete work on time, it delayed contractors, who wanted the city to compensate them.

Wine Village

Lawsuits are still in progress with the developers of Woodinville Village, a mixed-use wine village. This issue deals with the same roundabouts at the intersection of SR 202 and 148th Avenue NE.

The city agreed to work with the original developer, Woodinville Village Associates, to build the roundabouts. After WVA went into debt, Woodinville expected new developer Legacy Commercial to pay the city back for the roundabouts.

Most recently, in July 2013, the city appealed a court decision that Legacy Commercial does not have to pay for the roundabouts and other frontage improvements.

Phoenix Development

The city of Woodinville, along with Concerned Neighbors of Wellington, scored a victory against Phoenix Development, which sought to rezone two properties in the Wellington area from allowing one dwelling per acre to allowing four per acre.

The Washington State Supreme Court decided Woodinville had the right to decide its own development and deny Phoenix’s applications, according to a previous Woodinville Weekly article from June 20, 2011.

Unions

The city faced several lawsuits with unions, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

According to an Activity Report from the local Teamsters branch, an arbitrator said the city had to stop its practice of scheduling Teamsters to work two shifts clearing ice and snow from the roads instead of paying the workers overtime.

Tent City

Tent City 4, a homeless encampment sponsored by several charities, set up camp in Woodinville in 2004 and 2006.

"We made an agreement with them and let them use this park land we had," Katica said of Tent City’s 2004 stay.

When Tent City tried to come to Woodinville again in 2006, the city refused the encampment’s permit application, which led to a lawsuit and appeals.

Wellington Hills Park

Legal action about the proposed Wellington Hills County Park still hasn’t come to a conclusion.

Most recently, the city of Woodinville and citizen group Neighbors to Save Wellington Park filed appeals against Snohomish County in April, saying the county hasn’t considered the impact its park will have on traffic and on the environment, according to an Everett Herald article from April 25, 2013.

Ordinance 532

The city needed legal advice about Ordinance 532, which it adopted in October 2012. The ordinance changed development regulations to make stricter rules for residential densities, creating minimum lot sizes for single-family development projects.

Crown Castle

This case began when the city of Woodinville bought an old fire station, which had a cell tower on the back of the property, Katica said. Previously, the fire department had received payments for providing space for the cell tower, but when the city bought the property, it didn’t get the same amount in payments.

The lawsuit is ongoing, but Woodinville will likely win, Katica said.

Brightwater Easement

This case, which dealt with the Brightwater easement, contested the location of a sewage pipe through a city park, Katica said.

Phone Companies

Out of several lawsuits with phone companies, litigation with AT&T (which includes Cingular) has been settled, but legal proceedings with Frontier (which includes Verizon) are still in progress, Katica said. The phone companies had erroneously sent tax money to the city, then asked for a refund.

 

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