File photo
File photo

CITY HALL — Morrison and Foerster, the law firm selected by City Hall for its litigation against the Federal Aviation Administration, is putting the Living Wage Ordinance to shame.

City officials will pay the firm $575 an hour to represent them in the lawsuit, filed Oct. 31, meant to settle the ongoing dispute over who has control of Santa Monica Airport and its 227 acres.

Normal billing rates for senior partners on the case exceed $900 per hour, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said, but City Hall negotiated a blended rate. This means the hourly rate stays the same regardless of who works on the case, senior partners on down.

“They explained that their firm has a long-standing commitment to public service and a particular interest in this unusual case,” she said in an e-mail. “This rate is well within the range that (City Hall) has paid for specialized legal services in the past.”

City officials were initially hesitant to make the rate public, claiming that it would hurt their ability to negotiate discounts in the future. Three weeks and two public record requests later, they relented.

No money has been spent on the case thus far, Moutrie said.

Earlier this year, the Daily Press reported that Santa Monica has more high-paid attorneys than any municipality in Los Angeles County.

City officials defended the salaries, noting that the city attorneys are a “bargain” because they allow City Hall to avoid using private sector attorneys like Morrison & Foerster, referred to in legal circles as MoFo.

City Hall opts to use outside counsel when the opposition is strong and well-financed, as was the case in the water contamination lawsuits against major oil companies, or when the case requires special expertise, Moutrie said.

“In this case, we are litigating against the federal government, which can devote unlimited legal resources to the dispute; and we need special expertise in aviation law,” Moutrie said. “Additionally, the dispute is uniquely important to the community, and the asset (the airport land) is incredibly valuable. So, (City) Council determined that all possible steps should be taken to secure expert representation for (City Hall).”

City officials looked for “very highly regarded litigation firms” with offices in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

They did two rounds of interviews before deciding on Morrison and Foerster.

The firm offered City Hall two rates: one that averages the standard rates of all the attorneys on the case, which council selected, and the other that charges each attorney at their standard rate for the work done. Moutrie said they will tally the costs each month to make sure the selected rate is the most cost-effective.

“This office is closely monitoring Morrison and Foerster’s work,” Moutrie said. “And, we are sharing in the work to the extent practicable in order to contain costs as best we can.”

Regardless, Moutrie said, the case is going to be expensive but one worth fighting.

“The case is certain to be hard fought and costly,” she said. “But, council understandably concluded that the special circumstances — the importance of the dispute to the community, the unique and challenging legal issues, and the value of the asset — more than justify the expense of utilizing expert outside counsel.”

The airport has long been a bone of contention for neighbors, who complain of loud aircraft noises and fear that an errant jet or plane could strike nearby homes, some which sit 300 feet from the end of the runway. In September, a jet veered off the runway and crashed into a hangar, killing all four passengers.

The lawsuit asks a federal court to give City Hall a clear title to the land and challenges the constitutionality of the FAA’s assertion that City Hall must operate the airport after a 1984 settlement agreement, which establishes their obligations with the airport, expires. City officials claim the contract expires in 2015.

It’s been the FAA’s view that City Hall is obligated to keep the airport open at least through 2023. FAA officials also claim that City Hall must keep SMO open beyond that date thanks to a 1948 agreement with the federal government, which required City Hall to operate the airport in perpetuity.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has called the lawsuit “meritless.”

The airport opened in 1917 as an informal landing strip for World War I biplanes. Donald Douglas tested military and civilian aircraft, including the DC-3 and DC-4, at the airport starting in the 1920s. The airport has been the subject of numerous lawsuits starting after World War II.

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