Santa Ana City Council members appointed a new city attorney Monday night, more than a year after their longtime city attorney left city service.
Sonia Carvalho, who comes to the city with 20 years of experience in municipal law, will remain a partner at Best Best & Krieger, a law firm that provides attorney services to numerous counties and cities.
In appointing Carvalho, the city will be implementing a hybrid model that combines contracting with an outside attorney and having an in-house city attorney department.
The appointment was the culmination of a long process that, at times, was fraught with problems. Last year, council members extended an offer to their preferred candidate, Maribel Medina, general counsel for the San Francisco Unified School District, whose name was later leaked to Art Pedroza’s New Santa Ana blog.
Sources close to City Hall have said that the release of Medina’s name was orchestrated by Mayor Miguel Pulido to undermine the hiring process after it didn’t go his way.
Pedroza has confirmed that the name leak came from “a Miguel guy.”
Medina dropped out after her name was released.
Pulido was the only council member absent from Monday’s meeting.
The appointment drew sharp questions from Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez, the only council member to vote against it.
Alvarez pointed out that no other firm received notice about a possible contract, and Carvalho’s firm was the only one to seek it.
She also questioned whether allowing Carvalho to outsource 10 hours of work a month to her own firm would be a conflict of interest. Alvarez took issue with a staff report’s conclusion that Carvalho’s firm was the best pick for the city.
“What I have are a lot of red flags with this firm,” Alvarez said. The “icing on the cake,” she said, is that Carvalho’s firm “was overseeing the city of Bell when all the shenanigans were taking place.”
Eight Bell officials — including council members and former City Manager Robert Rizzo — were arrested on charges pf misappropriation of funds after the Los Angeles Times revealed that Rizzo was making nearly $800,000 per year and council members were each making nearly $100,000.
Bell sued its former city attorney, Edward Lee, and also named Lee’s law firm — Best, Best & Krieger — in the suit. Bell asserts that Lee was negligent when he allowed city officials to award themselves exorbitant salaries.
Carvalho said that Lee is no longer with the firm, that she works in a different office and that she had nothing to do with the legal advice given to Bell officials before the scandal broke.
“I had absolutely zero contact with that city,” Carvalho told the council.
Santa Ana Personnel Director Ed Raya said that while Alvarez’s concerns regarding conflict of interest were valid, the number of hours that could be charged to the firm is small.
Under the contract, the city will be paying the law firm $25,000 per month for Carvalho’s services. Other council members pointed out that the city would actually be saving money because the firm will be sponsoring her benefits package.
That came as a relief to Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who reminde, the council that former City Attorney Joe Fletcher departed with a salary, severance and unused time off package that totaled nearly $600,000, placing him behind only Rizzo as the second-highest compensated public official in the state.
“Yes, her [Carvalho’s] firm has had issues with the city of Bell, but she had nothing to with that,” Martinez said.
Carvalho, Santa Ana’s first Latina city attorney, co-chairs her firm’s public policy and ethics sub-practice group. She specializes in ethics and open-government laws and says that City Hall should be transparent to the public.
Carvalho said that while council members at first offered her an in-house position, she didn’t want to leave behind the vast database of work she has at the firm. She instead proposed the hybrid idea to the council.
“With the click of a button, I have access to over a million documents,” Carvalho said.