Town Councilman Nick Kapoor questioned First Selectman Steve Vavrek on why legal fees will be between $569,000 and $703,000 over budget for fiscal year 2011-12 during the council's Monday night meeting.
Council Republicans questioned what Kapoor's intention was in continuing to bring up the deficit and some accused him of politicizing the legal account. Kapoor is chairman of the Democratic Town Committee and Vavrek is a Republican.
Kapoor charged that outside counsel is being hired way more often with Jack Fracassini as town attorney, while claiming his predecessor, Fred Martin, handled 90 percent of cases other than non-labor matters.
Councilmen J.P. Sredzinski and Frank Lieto, both Republicans, expressed strong skepticism over Kapoor's claim, though Kapoor said it was based on his own research.
Lieto said, "You do not have the information to make these determinations. To stand up here on this dais to make blatantly irresponsible statements is unbecoming of a council member."
After the meeting, Kapoor said the issue of overspending legal fees had been brought up by Republicans serving on the Board of Finance before the Democrats had asked about it.
"I resent the implication that this is political," he said. "This is 650,000-plus dollars of taxpayers' money. As a council member, I am doing my job, looking out for Monroe taxpayers. We are in the people's seats when we sit on that dais. We should be standing up for the people and questioning whoever needs to be questioned."
Kapoor added, "Mr. Vavrek was evasive and other council members interceded on his behalf, deflecting pointed questions."
Prior to Kapoor asking his questions, Vavrek said he did not want to be "blindsided" and Town Council Chairwoman Enid Lipeles, a fellow Republican, pointed out that Vavrek did not know what the questions were ahead of time.
Kapoor had asked Vavrek why he chose the firm of Pullman & Comley to handle land use cases. Town Councilman Tony Unger, a Republican, expressed his belief that the council was overstepping its bounds in questioning the first selectman about choosing legal counsel, which he has a right to do by town charter.
"We're going against the charter by having this discussion," Unger said. "We have to let the first selectman enforce the laws and ordinances of this town."
Town Councilwoman Dee Dee Martin, a Democrat, agreed that Vavrek has the right to decide on legal counsel, but said the charter should not bar Town Council members from questioning the first selectman about his decisions.
On hiring Pullman & Comley, Vavrek said he did so based upon the recommendations of the Planning & Zoning Commission, which had spoken to four law firms. He added, "Pullman & Comley has a history of land use success."
Predicting Legal Costs
For 2011-12, the town budgeted $97,000 for legal fees and has spent $666,537 as of June 30. Kapoor asked Vavrek why he could not predict within a reasonable budgetary amount what the legal fees were going to be.
Vavrek said, "I think this has been explained at numerous meetings. There are ongoing cases. Do you want us to stop litigating? How can you predict ongoing litigation sir?"
Sredzinski said, "We've been through this over and over and over again. I'm not sure what the councilman's intention is. Budgets exist as a best guess. We approved that number."
He mentioned a recent case in which Bellsite Development LLC won a $700,000 judgement against the town. "We couldn't predict a $700,000 issue in February," Sredzinski said.
Lieto said "cases can be handled a million different ways."
Vavrek said to Kapoor, "If you can figure out a way to resolve cases beforehand, I would love to know."
Sredzinski said, "We can argue that the snowfall budget was under budget in 2008, but we can't predict the weather. This is pointless."
Since 2009, Kapoor said the town has been sued 21 times, so Vavrek cannot say all of the lawsuit costs were from previous administrations.
Unger said that just because the suits were brought within the last three years does not mean the problems did not begin sooner. He said Kapoor would have to look at each case to determine that.
Sredzinski said to Kapoor, "Do we want to make a motion? Do we want to take action? Or is this just a way for you to politicize the legal fees?"
"This is not a way for me to politicize the legal fees," Kapoor replied. "The reason I brought this up is this is truly outrageous. This is a lack of leadership. This is taxpayer money."