Referring to himself as the “elephant in the room,” Missoula City Council member Jesse Ramos on Wednesday continued his push to review attorney fees and billing statements relating to the city’s Mountain Water condemnation case.
In doing so, Ramos questioned the city’s lead acquisition attorney just as the Montana Supreme Court is set to decide the relevance of those fees and statements under an appeal filed by the water system’s former owner, the Carlyle Group.
“I’m the elephant in the room, not just because I’m Republican, but because of the recent spat over these legal bills,” Ramos said. “I’m a fiscal conservative and I don’t want us paying any more money for this.”
Ramos, who spoke at length on the Montana Constitution and his perceived right to review the documents, told Natasha Jones of Boone Karlberg, who has litigated on the city’s behalf in the Mountain Water acquisition case since 2014, that he’s on her team.
While Ramos acknowledged that some items within the fees and billing statements may be confidential and could reveal the city’s legal strategy, he asked Jones why he couldn’t review “sanitized statements” before likening his inability to do so to a crooked car mechanic.
“If you take your car to a car mechanic and they send you a bill for $20,000 and they don’t tell you what parts they replaced, why they need to be replaced and what they charge to replace those parts, I wouldn’t feel comfortable paying my mechanic,” Ramos said. “To me, it’s a constitutional issue. I have a firm believe in the Constitution and upholding that.”
Jones suggested Ramos was misreading the state constitution and the right-to-know clause, which Ramos cited. She said the privileges attached to attorney-client relations predate the Montana Constitution.
“The provision you want to rely on, which is the right-to-know section of the Montana Constitution, doesn’t trump the attorney-client privilege and attorney work product,” Jones said. “It’s just the opposite.”
Jones cited several recent cases in which the court ruled that cities don’t have to give up billing statements to the extent they contain attorney-client privilege and attorney product. One case was recently upheld by the Montana Supreme Court, she added.
“I understand you have both refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement and that you think redactions are illegal, but let’s set those issues aside,” Jones told Ramos before naming the other partners who have litigated on the city’s behalf in the case.
Those include Perkins Coie; Datsopoulos MacDonald and Lind; Kutak Rock and others, along with several expert witnesses.
“The process of going through four or five years of invoices in order to redact them would cost the city tens of thousands of dollars,” said Jones. “Someone would have to pay for that process.”
Speaking toward past statements made by Ramos that it was his duty to “not let these corporations run wild with taxpayer dollars,” Jones said the city’s legal bills have been vetted and vetted again.
When experts were working the case during trial, Jones said, their invoices were reviewed by Boone Karlberg for reasonableness, and that was communicated to the city. The litigation bills generated by Boone Karlberg itself were likewise sent to a transaction law firm, which reviewed them on the same merits before they went to the city.
And when those bills got to the city, Jones said, they were reviewed again.
“There was throughout and is today an immense amount of information that’s already in the public forum that we’ve debated in this room, that we have shared in this room, about what was going on in those cases, about what the attorneys were doing, and what the bills were being sent for,” Jones said.
Council member Bryan von Lossberg held similar sentiments, saying council members have had regular meetings for the past several years to discuss the fees and legal work with both the attorneys and the mayor’s administration.
The meeting Wednesday was intended to continue those discussion as several ancillary matters continue to move through the courts (see related story).
“We’re not here, Jesse, because of you playing any role of elephant in the room,” von Lossberg said. “We’ve convened in this fashion 60 times and we’d be having this meeting regardless of any concerns.”
Von Lossberg added, “I want to respectfully disagree with your car-mechanic characterization. We’re seeing invoice totals come in on a regular basis and we’ve had regular opportunities to discuss with our attorneys and the administration about the work that goes on, just like any other invoice that comes in. The process has been the same.”