The Ridgecrest City Council at its meeting Wednesday voted to increase the city’s legal budget for fiscal year 2016-2017 by $50,000, bringing the total to $335,000. Of this amount, $281,495 has been obligated through expenditure or encumbrance. The $50,000 will be taken from the general fund and is intended to provide legal funding to round out the fiscal year.


The item was approved unanimously, but not before a lively discussion ensued. At issue was City Attorney Keith Lemieux's role in advising the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority — the local Groundwater Sustainability Agency — and just how much of it should be funded by the city of Ridgecrest.


The consent calendar item was pulled for discussion by Councilwoman Lindsey Stephens. Stephens expressed concern over the city's legal expenditures, particularly the amount spent on legal advice for the GSA.


The GSA contains five voting members: the city of Ridgecrest, Kern County, the IWV Water District and San Bernardino and Inyo Counties. Each has provided an attorney to advise the group during its formation, but Stephens asked if Lemieux was doing an disproportionate amount of work.


“I know that some of the other agencies, their lawyers are not being utilized nearly as much,” Stephens said.


Lemieux initially agreed that “the big driver on this [budget] is the GSA work and that has been higher than we expected. We have been very involved in it,” Lemieux said. “And that is correct. For example, the bylaws have taken a lot more time than I might have thought ahead of time.”


Lemieux later clarified that “we have been dividing the work up. I haven't been doing everything,” but “at this point its necessary for me to at least review most things that have been done since it impacts the city's interest. I am not necessarily generating those things. I was the generator of the bylaws which has been taking up a lot of time.”


He also later emphasized that his job is not setting policy. The board sets policy and he advises and helps craft the language, he said. He also said that good legal advice is crucial at the outset, in case the GSA faces legal challenges down the line.


Lemieux said at the beginning of the discussion that things should settle down soon, presumably requiring less legal advice. “Ideally we are at the point where we get done with that project and turn things over to the [policy advisory committee] and the board and hopefully we don't have to be that involved.


“The reason we are so involved, we are trying to legally establish certain things. We are inventing a new public entity. Once its up and running I think it will be a lot less work.”


Lemieux said the plan is for the GSA to ultimately generate money through fees to pay for attorneys and other costs, but the agency needs to be up and running and have come up with a Groundwater Sustainability Plan first. He described the issue as “a little bit of a chicken and an egg problem.”


“The issue is the JPA [GSA joint powers authority] needs to spend money, both start-up costs and also related to expert work in order to get to the point where it can prepare a plan. Then it will provide a basis to assess fees or otherwise pay for all of these things . . . essentially we need to have a GSP in place and then we will get it sorted out.” He added that grant money is also being pursued.


At the outset of the discussion, Lemieux described the GSA as “a very complicated animal with a lot of moving parts” requiring a lot of attention. He added, “I am very proud of the work we have done in relation to that. I think we have added a lot of value to the process.”


Lemieux confirmed that each of the five voting members has an attorney involved to some extent, but said the “big three,” the city, Kern County, and the water district have had more attorney involvement.
Right now, he said, his office and the Kern County counsel are both more or less acting as general counsel for the GSA, but the intention is for the water district's attorney to eventually take over.


He added that the city is essentially providing legal services to the GSA (in addition to some funding) as sort of in-kind contribution. It's unclear whether or not the city will ever be reimbursed for these services, but several people present suggested strongly that good records are kept of the financial value of the city's legal contribution. Lemieux said they are.


“Whether or not we are reimbursed for our contributions would be a policy issue that the board would have to decide. We are tracking it and we will get credit,” he said.


Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason currently serves as GSA board chair. The chairmanship will rotate, with the city's rep stepping up next year.


“The idea is supposed to be that the legal services will rotate with the chair so that when its the city's turn then the city sends the attorney just to handle the meetings essentially,” Lemieux explained.


He reiterated that once the GSA is up and running, he expects far less legal involvement will be required. “There will be a point where this thing will be functioning like a normal public entity. At that point I don't expect that you are going to want to have multiple attorneys looking over everybody's shoulder,” he said.


Stan Rajtora and Mike Neel both spoke up, strongly suggesting that legal fees for the GSA advice are broken out as a separate line item from other legal fees in the city budget.


Marilyn Neel also suggested the city and the GSA take advantage of the many public volunteers willing to assist with the process. “Lets let Mr. Lemieux do the legal aspects and let our citizens be involved,” she said.


At the end of the discussion, it was Stephens who made the motion to approve the item.


“I don't know that we have a choice,” she said.