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Carolina Beach Releases Info On New Town Attorney Contract

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CAROLINA BEACH - The Carolina Beach Town Council recently voted to contract with a new Town Attorney. This comes after many months of examination of funds spent on legal fees ranging into the hundreds of thousands of dollars in previous years.
The Carolina Beach Town Council terminated a contract with their Town Attorney on Friday January 27, 2012 after holding a closed session meeting.
Following that closed session Mayor Ray Rothrock stated, "We were talking about the legal fees that the Town of Carolina Beach has paid over the past several years, specifically since July 1 through December was in the amount of something just over $90,000, and we know that for the month of January we've already spent $5,000 and maybe closer to about $10,000 by the time we are finished with that. So we have a concern about what the Town is spending on legal fees. We are certainly pleased with the service we have gotten but we think paying those fees are too much and we can reduce those."
The Council voted unanimously to terminate the contract.
The Council voted unanimously to send out RFP's to solicit contracts from other attorney's.
Shuttleworth said in the future the Town Attorney, "Is basically an independent contractor that's hired by Council so that is not necessarily a personnel matter and in fact can be discussed, and some would say should be discussed - in a public forum. So if we want to have a brief presentation by staff of what the RFP requirements were requested just so we know what we are asking our council to do. There seems to be some question on what are the different legal tasks that we repeatedly go to our counsel for."
Councilman Shuttleworth explained, "Within seven months we had already nearly spent an entire year's budgeted amount for legal services."
Last fiscal year ending June 30, 2011, the Town had spent around $168,068 on legal fees when only $100,000 was included in the budget.
After reviewing other applicants, in October the previous Town Council reappointed Coggins to continue serving as Town Attorney with a base $9,000  monthly retainer.
Mayor Ray Rothrock had campaigned last year calling into question the large budget expenditures on legal fees and pledging to resolve the situation. Councilman Bob Lewis initially raised concerns last year about spending $248,849.62 in 2009/2010 as opposed to $23,266.67 for  2007/2008 on legal expenses.
With no official Town Attorney the Town paid for a temporary attorney until their May 11, meeting when they emerged from a closed session and announce they had negotiated a contract with a new firm.
Upon emerging from the closed session, Mayor Ray Rothrock explained, "We discussed procurement of the attorney for the Town."
Council member Sarah Friede said, "I make a motion that the Town enter into the contract with Lawrence Craige of Craige and Fox as proposed. As discussed." That's the Wilmington based law firm of Craige & Fox, PLLC.
The Council voted unanimously to approve of the motion.
According to the firms website, Craige received his Bachelor of Arts from the College of William and Mary and Master of Arts in 1993 from the University of Alabama. Later he was awarded his Juris Doctorate in 1997 from the University of North Carolina School of Law.
According to their website, "He currently serves on the Board of Directors for the North Carolina Guardianship Association. Lawrence is also the President of the Historic Wilmington Foundation and is a past President of Wilmington Downtown, Inc.Lawrence’s primary areas of practice include:  Estate Planning and Administration Law, Fiduciary Litigation, Guardianship and Elder Law."
According to an unsigned agreement sent to the Town by Lawrence Craige following the May meeting and provided by Town Manager Tim Owens, it states, "Attorneys will be billed on an hourly basis, excepting travel time to regularly scheduled Town Council meetings, with time being charged in six minute increments."
Attorney rates are as follows:
- Lawrence S. Craige:         $200/hour
- Charlotte Noel Fox:         $200/hour
- Ashley Michael:        $175/hour
- Bonnie M. Braudway:        $175/hour
The agreement states, "Paralegals will be billed on an hourly basis, with time being charged in six minute increments an hour, at the rate of Sixty dollars and no/cents ($60.00)."
Rates will be reviewed on an annual basis. No monthly retainer fee will be charged.
The agreement states, "Attorneys will use their discretion in staffing, to provide services in the most economical manner possible.  Please note that all time spent on your behalf in this matter, including time spent in telephone conversations, will be charged to you.  The initials of the person performing the services will be noted on the invoice."
The agreement states, " In addition to fees for legal services, Attorney will be entitled to payment for “Administrative Costs” incurred for services, including but not limited to: photo copying, messenger and delivery services, fees for computerized research services, long distance telephone, and telecopying. These costs will be billed at a rate of 5.9% of the total attorney fees on each invoice. In addition, travel (including mileage excepting regularly scheduled Town of Carolina meetings, parking, air fare, lodging, meals and ground transportation), depositions, court costs, and filing fees will be billed as “Expenses” and listed separately on each invoice, per incident.  Client agrees that Client is responsible for all such costs and expenses related to this case.  Depending upon the type of case you have, expenses may also include, but are not limited to: medical treatment, charges for medical examinations and reports, the cost of accident and credit reports, hospital records and pictures.  Attorney is hereby authorized to charge such expenses and have such expenses billed to Client and Client agrees to pay them promptly.  Unless other arrangements are made at the outset, fees and expenses of others will not be paid by Attorney and will be the responsibility of and billed directly to the Client.  The firm’s policy is to forward to clients for direct payment any expense charges that exceed $100.00."
Also, Client agrees that Attorney may retain co-counsel, and Attorney agrees that Client will be consulted concerning co-counsel and any fee arrangements with co-counsel prior to retention of consultation with co-counsel by Attorney.
The agreement is far less detailed than the previous agreement signed with former Attorney Steve Coggins in the fall of 2011.
In that contract, the Town would pay a monthly retainer of $9,000 per month for a detailed list of services and then an additional higher rate of $225 per hour for "Special Services" above normal duties such as typical legal advice and attending Council meetings.
As part of the $9,000 a month retainer, the rate was $165 per hour unless the total hours didn't reach $9,000 at which point a higher rate of $200 per hour would be charged for general services. Special services were a separate expense beyond the monthly retainer.
Under that contract the Town experienced a bill over $5,000 in January 2012 which once again raised a concern regarding legal fees.
Councilman Steve Shuttleworth commented in January prior to beginning the search for a new attorney that since the attorney was "basically an independent contractor hired by the Council so that is no necessarily a personnel matter and in fact can be discussed and some would say should be discussed, in a public forum."
At the May 11, meeting the Council voted to select the new Town Attorney without holding a public discussion on the matter. They had previously been provided information from the North Carolina School of Government that informed them that local governing bodies could not enter into a closed session to discuss an employment contract with a retained town attorney because that issue concerned an independent contractor, not a town employee.