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September 15, 2019

8/20/2019 7:30:00 AM
City receives $77,000 in bills from law firm
Heather Schaefer and Jamie Taylor
Of the River News

The city of Rhinelander has received invoices totally approximately $77,000 for professional services rendered by the von Briesen & Roper law firm during the months of May and June as well as for services associated with the firm's investigation into four city personnel complaints.

The invoices were sent to city administrator Daniel Guild via email Aug. 9.

The bills came with a letter from acting city attorney Hector de la Mora explaining the firm's delay in submitting its bills as well as offering assurance that costs will diminish in the future.

The attorney also explained the billing delay - which he said was the result of changes to the firm's billing system - during discussion of "bills and claims" at the common council's Aug. 12 meeting.

"What has happened is that our firm went to a totally different electronic billing system and the crossover to that process resulted in the bills not being issued on a monthly basis," de la Mora said, noting that clients other than Rhinelander were also affected.

After de la Mora finished his comments, alderman Steve Sauer made the following statement:

"We all did get emailed the bills today," Sauer said. "We all did get emailed an explanation of why the bills had not been sent out. I want to thank Hector and whoever actually sent it out. I know Daniel (Guild) forwarded the bills to the council along with the letter explaining literally what you (Hector) just said. Appreciate that."

Sauer's statement was met with confusion from some of the alderpersons, suggesting all council members did not receive the invoices and the explanatory letter at the same time.

"I didn't receive anything," said alderperson Dawn Rog

"I didn't get anything like that," alderman Lee Emmer interjected. "I was on my computer essentially up until the time I came here," he added.

While Emmer was talking, alderperson David Holt commented that he "had it" when he checked his email at around 4 p.m.

Emmer then checked his email again and noted that there was no email containing the invoices and letter.

The discussion ended with a motion to approve the existing bills and claims. The von Briesen bills were not included in the motion because they were not part of the meeting's agenda. The council is expected to consider the invoices at a future meeting.

The River News asked Sauer and Holt for an explanation as to why and how they received the invoices before the council meeting while at least two of their colleagues did not.

Both men indicated they received the bills earlier in the day Monday because they specifically asked for them.

"There have been several occasions that I have requested documents from Daniel (Guild) either in person or by telephone, just as I have with previous administrators and department heads when the city did not have an administrator," Sauer told the River News in an email. "The VonBriesen invoices are an example one of these occasions. I asked him to send them during a phone call on Monday and he obliged."

"The Von Briesen bills had been brought up on a number of occasions in the past month by numerous council members, and in the past several weeks I had directly requested a number of pieces of information by phone and in person, including those bills," Holt said.

The River News asked all of the council members when they received the von Briesen bills.

Alderman Ryan Rossing replied that he received the invoices on Monday, Aug. 12 but did not specify the time. Emmer and Rog reiterated that they did not receive the bills until 10 p.m. Monday, after the council meeting was over. The other alderpersons did not respond prior to press time.

The River News also sent Guild a set of questions related to the distribution of the invoices to the council members, but he did not respond.

The timing of the distribution of the invoices is noteworthy because the council remains largely divided regarding the direction of the city. Half of the panel appears to be solidly behind the city administrator and the mayor while the other half continues to express concern about the administration of the city under the leadership of Guild and Frederickson.

The von Briesen firm itself has also been the subject of questions from some council members, including Rog and Emmer.

Earlier this year, Emmer and Rog expressed concerns about the propriety of the mayor's decision to act independently of the council in hiring the firm to investigate the personnel complaints that have plagued the city over the last several months. Rog has also been vocal in expressing concern about the cost of legal services provided by von Briesen - a "blended rate" of $275 per hour versus the $140 per hour the city paid its last municipal attorney Carrie Miljevich, whose contract was not renewed this spring.

Rog was also vocal in asking for an explanation as to the firm's delay in submitting bills.

According to the invoices submitted by de la Mora, the von Briesen firm charged the city $33,904.82 for services rendered between March 26 and June 30, 2019 related to the personnel investigations. For general services rendered in May and June, the firm charged the city $42,735. For work related to Dark Store litigation (the practice of big box retailers filing lawsuits against municipalities challenging their tax assessments) completed during May and June, the firm charged the city $2,597.50. The firm is currently defending the city against two such lawsuits.

In his cover letter, attorney de la Mora offers insight into how the firm has approached its work with the city of Rhinelander.

"As indicated by the City upon engaging us on all legal matters, there was a considerable amount of pending legal matters needing immediate attention," he wrote. "Aside from that sheer volume of work, the transition has been more difficult and more costly than normal due to new significant and novel legal issues arising, previous issues where the scope of those matters was not known to us, and with the transition process from the prior City Attorney. That transition of course is behind us and we are well on our way in assisting the City by providing more efficient, more cost effective and legally sound legal advice. For example, while the City has an unusually high amount of public records requests, we have an attorney dedicated to working with the City to develop processes for addressing such requests in a more efficient, timely, and cost-effective manner. The current effort, while being a cost now, is designed to have us phase out of this area as the updated process is completed and the City's backlog of records requests is reduced. Similar processes are developing for the traffic court work backlog and while we have an attorney dedicated to that backlog, once in place, we look to transition that work to effective local counsel. While currently high, these costs will diminish as backlogs are addressed and processes are put in place to make things more efficient."

The attorney also made some additional observations.

"We also want to point out something that is not in the costs or the bills. We invest a considerable amount of time coordinating the City's work, but we only bill for the actual legal work or the coordination of work by Attorney Hector de la Mora when required. For example, while several attorneys may be copied on a communication from the City or by the City, only the lawyer performing actual legal work or coordinating that work has billed the City. This has been a considerable investment our firm has made for the benefit of the City and that we will continue to make. We appreciate the confidence and trust the City has placed in our firm."

In its reports on the personnel investigations, the firm cleared Guild of any wrong-doing related to a declaration of no confidence issued by a group of City Hall employees regarding his behavior as administrator, but found no merit to claims of harassment/retaliation filed by Rog and former Department of Public Works Director Tim Kingman. The firm also suggested the council further investigate claims of a hostile work environment in the public works department. Shortly after the recommendation was made, the council voted 5-4 to fire Kingman. Guild is now the acting interim director of public works.

According to de la Mora's letter, the firm will soon submit its bills for the month of July.

Meanwhile, the city has received only one response to its advertisements for a new city attorney, Guild announced during the Aug. 12 council meeting and that person was interested in the prosecutorial side of the job.

Guild indicated the city would continue to get the word out about its search for a new city attorney.

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