After Nine Years, Curley Out As Upland City Attorney

UPLAND—The tenure of Bill Curley as Upland city attorney drew to a close this week as the city council, discontented with mounting legal costs,  moved to seek bids on a new contract for legal services.
In response to the city’s action, Curley and his firm, Richards Watson & Gershon, resigned. The city council moved immediately to hire Jimmy Gutierrez, who is currently serving as city attorney in Chino and Rialto. He will serve as interim city attorney while the city conducts its search for a legal firm to represent the city on an ongoing basis.
Curley has been Upland city attorney since 2003. He succeeded another member of the Richards Watson & Gershon law firm, James Markman. Richards Watson & Gershon had been Upland’s legal counsel since 1993.
The city has paid Richards Watson & Gershon over $8 million since Curley took over as city attorney in June 2003. In recent years, the city’s legal bills have escalated, with $6 million of those legal fees having accrued over the last four years.
The costliest of the litigation the city is involved in  is a lawsuit brought by the county of San Bernardino against it, Caltrans and the county’s transportation agency, San Bernardino Associated Governments, known as SANBAG. That lawsuit relates to Upland’s approval of the Colonies at San Antonio residential and Colonies Crossroads commercial developments and the $102 million settlement cost the county sustained when the developer, the Colonies Partners, sued the county over flood control issues after the county built the 20th Street storm drain at Upland’s behest in conjunction with Caltrans’ extension of the 210 Freeway across property owned by the Colonies Partners. More than four years ago, the county offered to settle the case with Upland for $2 million. The Upland City Council, upon the advice of Richards, Watson & Gershon, declined that offer. The city has paid $4.9 million in legal fees to Richards Watson & Gershon to defend against the suit, nearly two-and-a-half times the amount of the settlement offer.
The city has also paid Richards Watson & Gershon over $575,000 to defend it in a case brought against it by Robert Mills and Scott Schaller, the owners of the Chronic Cantina, over the city’s April 2009 effort to revoke that restaurant’s operating permits. The city was guided by Curley in its decision to yank that consent. It has since been publicly disclosed that former mayor John Pomierski was extorting the Chronic Cantina’s ownership and was receiving laundered fees in return for assurances by his business associates that the mayor could ensure that the nightspot would have clearance to operate. A federal grand jury indicted Pomierski on conspiracy, extortion and bribery charges on March 2, 2011. Pomierski maintains his innocence and his lawyer has demanded that the city cover his legal costs in defending himself in the lawsuit brought by Mills and Schaller.
The city has expended just over $420,000 in an effort to prevent G3 Holistics, a marijuana clinic which opened in 2009, from operating in Upland. The city’s legal efforts in this regard had little impact on the collective and in the view of many have now proven to be superfluous and a waste of money as the federal government, in the form of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, have taken steps against such operations throughout the state, including a November raid of the G3 clinic in Upland. Drug Enforcement Agency officers told G3’s owner in January that he is in violation of federal law and will be subject to federal prosecution if he persists in operating the clinic.
In 2011, Richards Watson & Gershon posted monthly bills to Upland ranging from a low of $117,403 to a high of $213,794.
Richards Watson & Gershon’s legal representation of the city had also become problematic on another score. In November, former Upland city manager Robb Quincey filed a wrongful termination claim against the city, asserting he had been fired in large measure because he had questioned what he characterized as excessive billings to the city by Richards Watson & Gershon.  Quincey’s attorney, Joseph Wohrle, has petitioned the court for arbitration in the matter and with the prospect of Curley and his firm becoming a focus of the case, the city was obliged to get another law firm to represent it against Quincey, who, ironically, was once on good terms with Curley.
Repeated attempts by the Sentinel to reach Curley for comment were unsuccessful.
The city’s legal subcommittee, which consists of councilman Brendan Brandt, himself an attorney, and councilman Gino Filippi, are now evaluating all of the litigation involving the city and sizing up the city’s options with regard to resolving those cases or hunkering down for potentially bruising court battles. An obvious concern is that with the resignation of Richards Watson & Gershon, the investment the city made in having lawyers with that firm familiarize themselves with the issues involved in the litigation the city is involved in has been lost. For example, on the single litigation matter of the San Bernardino County Flood Control District against the City of Upland, in the month of September 2010 alone, Richards, Watson & Gershon racked up charges of $105,830 for the time of seven partners and employees who charged up to $348 per hour. The total hours billed were 367.3 at $288 per hour.
In the meantime, Gutierrez will steer clear of undertaking any work with regard to that ongoing litigation. His duties will apply strictly to holding down the fort until a new city attorney is hired. His work for Upland will consist primarily of attending the council meetings and certain meetings of the city’s department heads, and providing advice on routine matters.
He will be compensated at a rate of $225 per hour.

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