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Granite Shoals tries to rein in mounting legal fees to city attorney

Granite Shoals City Attorney Joshua Katz

Granite Shoals City Attorney Joshua Katz listens to the council deliberate on possible solutions to the city’s high spending on legal fees. Councilors ultimately decided to officially limit direct contact with the attorney to members of the council and city administration. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

The Granite Shoals City Council passed a motion that would limit direct access to the city attorney to only council members and city administration during its regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 24. The decision was made to help curb the city’s mounting legal fees, which were racked up amid personnel shifts and disciplinary actions taken in the 2021-22 fiscal year.

The council’s exact motion established ground rules for communicating with City Attorney Joshua Katz, who is paid by the hour. From now on, only the council and the acting city manager will have direct access to Katz. Granite Shoals residents and members of the city’s many committees will have to funnel questions through the city manager to get legal counsel. 

Councilors and city administration have a legal right to confer with the city attorney, who provides counsel and ensures that city business is being conducted within the confines of the law.

The Granite Shoals council first addressed the city’s high legal bills during its Jan. 10 regular meeting but held off on making a decision until Tuesday’s meeting.

The city did not disclose the exact amount spent on counsel given to residents or committee members but did share with DailyTrib.com its total legal expenditures for the 2021-22 fiscal year and Katz’s hourly rate of $200. 

Granite Shoals spent $116,498.14 on legal fees in the 2021-22 fiscal year and had already spent $30,166.67 in the 2022-23 fiscal year as of Dec. 1, 2022. For reference, the city of Marble Falls, which has over four times the annual city budget of Granite Shoals, spent $115,465 in the 2021-22 fiscal year.

The lion’s share of the Granite Shoals fees are thought to have come from conflicts that transpired within the city over the past year, including disciplinary actions taken against City Councilor Phil Ort regarding a public information request, the formation of the city’s first-ever ethics review committee to further censure Ort, the firing of City Manager Jeff Looney, and the appointment processes that came with the resignation of Mayor Will Skinner and Councilor Eddie McCoy

“We’re aware of the attorney fees and the need to not stir up conflicts,” Interim City Manager Peggy Smith told DailyTrib.com. 

It’s not just these past two fiscal years that Granite Shoals has had hefty legal fees. The city saw $162,220.35 in legal spending in fiscal year 2020-21, $158,182.76 in 2019-20, and $120,734.57 in 2018-19.

The fees are not completely associated with city conflicts. It is standard practice for councils to confer with city attorneys when making critical decisions, drafting city ordinances, or navigating complicated civic duties.

“We thought it would be best for all requests to go through Peggy (Smith) first so that she could determine whether or not they should be sent to Mr. Katz for review or his opinion,” Mayor Aaron Garcia said prior to the council’s vote.

The council unanimously passed the motion but had a short discussion concerning Katz’s role in providing counsel to committee members.

“At that same token, is this more directed to Josh to only accept correspondence from the city manager or council?” Councilor Samantha Ortis asked. “Because we have had citizens that have called you (Katz) directly or emailed you directly.”

Ortis originally brought the issue of attorney fees up at a previous council meeting, seeking answers for why residents or committee members were ever allowed to incur attorney fees on behalf of the city.

“When (I am contacted by residents or committee members), I usually just go to Peggy anyway, but I would interpret the motion that you just passed to say that I will talk to Peggy before I spend any time analyzing questions I receive,” Katz said in response to Ortis.

Members of the Charter Review Committee often contact him for legal counsel on possible adjustments to the city’s charter, Katz said.

dakota@thepicayune.com