Legal bills study is set

Council member to begin examining CA records this week


March 11, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Two and a half months after she asked to see the Columbia Association's legal bills, Councilwoman Cecilia Januszkiewicz finally has permission to review records accounting for $433,000 in fees paid to a private law firm.

The Columbia Council's decision last week to let the Long Reach councilwoman see the bills followed a protracted debate, waged in e-mails and multiple council meetings since December. Council members argued over whether she should see the bills - and whether her request to see them should have come before the council as an agenda item.

"It's just a lot of wasted energy for a result that was clearly going to occur," said Januszkiewicz, who plans to examine the bills at Columbia Association headquarters this week.

Since late December, Januszkiewicz has been seeking copies of bills paid to the firm Piper, Marbury, Rudnick & Wolfe. The bills show not only the amount charged - which council members know, because they approve the payments - but also a detailed accounting of the work done to generate those charges.

Januszkiewicz's request - and the opposition to it - grew out of an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust on the council.

Januszkiewicz first asked to see the records because she suspected that Chairman Lanny Morrison of Harper's Choice had received more legal advice on a Columbia Association matter than he had shared with the full council. Morrison resisted, because, he said, council members cannot be trusted to keep confidential legal information private.

"If the information would be properly protected, I have no problems with anyone on the board reviewing that ...," he said. "I wasn't doing it to be frivolous or obstructive. I have legitimate concerns."

Parliamentary green light

Januszkiewicz succeeded after digging up two parliamentary rules governing the Columbia Council.

The first shows that, as a council member, she has the right to have the matter placed on a meeting agenda. The second shows that council members are entitled to association records unless a two-thirds "super-majority" of the 10-member council agrees to withhold them.

In the end, a motion to withhold the records did not win a single vote from the eight council members present Thursday.

Januszkiewicz accuses Morrison of trying to hide information and deter people from seeking it.

"It's an expectation that people who have asked the questions will go away if you continue to provide resistance," she said. "What you have done is sent a signal to the council and community that if you ask, this is what you're in for."

Morrison said he was not trying to hide anything. He and some of his supporters on the council have questioned Januszkiewicz's motives for seeking the legal bills, suggesting that she is merely "digging for dirt" on him.

"I was concerned about motive, and I was concerned about confidentiality issues, particularly with respect to personnel matters," said Councilwoman Donna Rice of Town Center, who sided with Morrison. "Too much dirty linen has been aired in public already, and I just had a little problem with that."

In late December, Januszkiewicz asked to see the firm's bills on a particular legal matter, having to do with a change in the way the Columbia Association assesses property. She made the request after she learned that a document drafted by the law firm on the assessment issue was circulated to Morrison and two other council members.

Request for all records

When Morrison objected - saying that too much staff time would be needed to cull bills related to the assessment issue - Januszkiewicz asked to see all the billing records for all matters Piper, Marbury had handled for the association in recent months. She said she preferred to review them all, because she was concerned about the amount of money the association was spending on outside legal advice.

The association spent more on legal fees from May 1 to Jan. 31 than it spends in a typical year. Annual fees have ranged from $117,000 to $261,000 since 1997, according to President Maggie J. Brown. During the past year, the council has dealt with such complex legal issues as settlement payments to two Columbia Association vice presidents who were forced out during a period of turmoil.

Morrison said he does not consider the fees unusually high, considering that the association has been without a general counsel since March 2000 - a situation he blames, in part, on Januszkiewicz, who was on the council that ousted the in-house lawyer.

Morrison tried to hold Januszkiewicz to her original request, to review only the legal bills stemming from the assessment issue. Those amounted to $25,000. She got permission to see those bills late last month, but continued to push to see all the association's recent legal bills.

Lawyer's counsel

As the council considered Januszkiewicz's request at its meeting Thursday, it asked a lawyer from Piper, Marbury to weigh in.

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