Cedar Hills lawyer blames his high legal bill on citizen group
Cedar Hills' attorney says a community watchdog group is mainly responsible for $160,000 in attorney fees the city paid over the past 1Â½ years.
To check that claim, the group Cedar Hills Citizens for Responsible Government (CHCRG) sought copies of the city's legal billing invoices.
But on Thursday, the Utah State Records Committee ruled that the city had not violated open records laws by redacting dates, times and names on the invoices.
After nearly three hours of discussion, Cedar Hills resident and former City Council member Ken Cromar who represents CHCRG didn't convince the records committee to allow the release of unredacted invoices.
Cromar sees the defeat as a victory that will bring more transparency to the city of 10,000 people.
"People are beginning to learn all is not well in Cedar Hills," Cromar told The Tribune after the meeting at the State Archives Building.
The dispute stemmed from a March 5 request for all emails since 2011 between the current mayor, City Council and city manager from private and public accounts. The city provided 6,000 pages of emails, but it admitted some had been destroyed.
"We find that problematic, not only for Cedar Hills residents, but for the entire citizenry of the state," Cromar said.
Later the city publicly accused the CHCRG in newsletters and on its website of costing taxpayers thousands of dollars in extra legal fees due to its many Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) requests.
Cedar Hills attorney Eric Johnson said he has a flat $2,000 monthly rate for providing administrative help to city staff, and bills $150 an hour for additional litigation work. He said his higher than usual annual billing mostly dealt with battling residents at state records committee hearings, which he considers "a form of litigation."
CHCRG requested copies of the invoices in October, and received some. After the group filed an appeal to the state records committee, the city released the rest, redacted.
After an private look at a few nonredacted invoices, the committee unanimously decided that the city made warranted redactions.
Cromar said he was disappointed the committee didn't see how the city was "gaming the system" in order to delay giving information to the public.
Johnson said the costs are "directly related to the lawsuits Ken Cromar and his group have brought up by state records committee appeals."
It's a vicious chicken-and-egg style dispute that Cromar says would end if the city provided the records without putting up a fight.
Committee member Patricia Smith-Mansfield questioned the city's redactions, noting a record for Stirba and Associates commenting on a zoning issue didn't appear to be part of future litigation.
Jerry Dearinger, an attorney who is also part of the citizen group, said the vague attorney invoices were problematic.
"If I received an invoice and I didn't know what it was for, I would be very concerned," he told the committee.
Johnson told the committee he didn't redact anything that wasn't protected by attorney-client privilege, which he said covered anything that had the potential to go to court.
Cromar noted the group has never sued the city, and said after the meeting, "How could an attorney submit billings lacking enough detail for a mayor and city council to know if the money is being spent wisely on behalf of taxpayers?"
Johnson said if the questions keep coming up, the city will keep defending itself.
"The city welcomes these reviews and is confident if there is future appeal of GRAMA it would prevail again."