Salt Lake County Council members came out swinging Tuesday when County Auditor Greg Hawkins requested funding up to $375,000 to pay for his lawsuit to keep the council from moving budget preparations from his office to the mayor's office.
What incensed council members was not the lawsuit they recognize Hawkins' right to hire outside legal counsel in a fight he believes crucial to preserving budget checks and balances but that Hawkins hired his former law partner Blake Atkin to represent him. And he did it without going through the District Attorney's procurement process.
One element of that process checks to ensure the requested hourly fee for an outside service, including legal counsel, is reasonable. And council members did not believe Atkin's rate, $450 per hour, came close to being reasonable.
"I'm appalled he'd charge that much," Councilman Jim Bradley said, contending a ninth-grader could have written a better complaint than the one that Atkin filed and that will be the subject of a hearing Thursday in 3rd District Court. "It's remarkably bad in terms of English composition."
Councilman David Wilde agreed.
"I'm really upset about this lawsuit; $450 an hour is way beyond what this guy [Atkin] is worth. No way am I going to vote to approve this."
Added Councilman Steve DeBry: "I'm offended and upset that we have to give a dime for a frivolous lawsuit. That's what this is."
Neither Hawkins nor Atkin were at the council meeting. Attempts to contact Atkin were unsuccessful.
Hawkins' chief deputy, Lonn Litchfield, acknowledged that he had worked previously for Atkin and that Hawkins and Atkin had been partners. But those business relationships no longer exist, Litchfield said.
He maintained the auditors chose Atkin because of his experience in complex litigation and knowledge of the law regarding county governments.
"We thought he was the right person to do the job," Litchfield said. "His hourly rate might be higher, but because of his expertise, he gets things done. â¦ It's important to have the ability to choose who we want."
He said the auditors needed to act quickly so they could stop the transfer of their office's budget division which tracks incoming revenue and develops a preliminary county budget based on that data before it becomes effective on Jan. 1. And Litchfield said he thought they had abided by the proper processes.
But District Attorney Sim Gill said the process should be conducted before outside assistance is brought in. To protect taxpayers' money, that process determines what the going rate is for a desired service and who might be able to provide that service, and provides for a review of invoices to ensure that charges are justifiable.
"If you don't follow the process," he said, "you're asking for a blank check."
Litchfield actually was asking only for $75,000 initially, money that would come out of the current 2011 budget, and estimated another $300,000 may be needed from the 2012 budget in case the lawsuit drags on.
The council put the request for $75,000 on hold until the District Attorney's review process is completed.