CITY HALL — Santa Monica has more high-paid staff attorneys than any municipality in Los Angeles County, according to a recent report.
In 2011, the city was paying 17 legal department employees more than $200,000 per year, compared to Los Angeles’ 11 — the second most in the county.
That’s according to the 2012-13 Civil Grand Jury Final Report. City Manager Rod Gould said the report was flawed for a number of reasons, but did acknowledge that Santa Monica pays well — a decision he stands by.
Several senior attorneys have retired since City Hall submitted salary information to the county.
In the 2012-13 fiscal year, City Hall paid 14 legal department employees more than $200,000. Another nine employees made more than $100,000. City Attorney Marsha Jones Moutrie was paid $300,120, according to documents provided by city officials.
“We are a full service city that undertakes a uniquely broad range of activities,” Moutrie said in an e-mail. “They include operation of a bus line, an airport, water wells, and various public facilities and venues. And, the city provides an exceptionally broad range of services to residents, including services from this office that protect the rights of tenants and consumers.
“Likewise, the [City] Council has chosen to adopt a number of rather complicated and/or unusual local laws that protect residents and their quality of life,” she added. “This office enforces many of them, but it could not do so without experienced prosecutors and civil enforcement attorneys.”
When Gould came to Santa Monica, he thought: “Why are we running a medium-sized law firm on the third floor at City Hall?”
The attorneys act as prosecutors, offer consumer protection, fight for tenants and have a criminal division, he said.
“You can do it through your own staff or you can hire outside attorneys at an hourly rate,” he said. “The hourly rate includes their salaries, their partners’ salaries, the overhead rent in their office buildings, their insurance, their taxes, and everything else that goes into running a law firm.”
He called the attorneys “a bargain” in comparison to the private sector. He said that each city is run differently, pointing to the in-house trash collection provided by Santa Monica.
“Doing it slightly differently doesn’t make it wrong,” he said.
Mayor Pam O’Connor said the salaried lawyers allow City Hall to act aggressively on behalf of taxpayers.
“In general, we are seen as an affluent city so people go after us frequently,” she said. “In addition, we are a progressive city so sometimes people challenge our policies. We need good lawyers to back our progressive ideals.”
She, too, pointed out that salaries are less expensive than contract work in the long run.
Gould said that City Hall has never performed a study to see if it is more efficient to use in-house or private lawyers. He said that when City Hall occasionally needs specialty legal council it learns that the costs are “astounding.”
“Just on that spot-checking that we do periodically I get the sense that we are doing it right,” he said.
Gould pointed to, among other cases, legal victories against major industrial polluters that saved City Hall hundreds of millions of dollars.