Atwater's legal bill of about $100,000 after two months of work "shocked" some of the City Council members, who called it "a bunch" of money, but the attorney contends the cost was necessary.
Several members of the public complained about the bill on Monday during the City Council meeting, saying they want greater transparency on why the city was billed for $96,283 on May 7, according to records.
During the same meeting, the council also voted 3-2 to make interim City Attorney Doug White the full-time attorney after less than three months in the temporary spot. Mayor Jim Price and James Vineyard cast the "no" votes.
White said the May 7 bill included a one-time roughly $20,000 departmental review of the city initiated by the previous city manager, Art de Werk, as well as work mandated by the law that involving confidential matters for city employees.
"Many things, whether you like it or not, are required by statute to be investigated," he said. "We'll continue to have transparency as much as we're legally allowed to."
A portion of the expenses, White said, amount to upfront costs for city projects that the coffers will regain by charging future development. Those upfront costs were related to the Ferrari Ranch project, a planned 3 million square-foot development, and the city's recent decision to allow cannabis dispensaries.
The city has struggled with its finances with a $2.5 million general fund debt and millions more in unfunded liabilities. The talk of the city potentially being audited by the state may come to a head on Wednesday, when city leaders and employees are set to go to the state Capitol to meet with the Assembly's Joint Legislative Audit Committee.
White said he wanted to "address the inference" that he's trying to run up the bill for his own gain. "It couldn't be more false. I've come to this (city) representing eight or nine cities already," he said. "The idea that I need to come to Atwater to make a living for myself is absurd."
In comparison, the city's previous attorney charged the city $310,322 for eight months of work, according to White. He contends that if you subtract the one-time fee and personnel-related charges, that the bill is similar to a monthly average charged by the previous legal firm, Terpstra Henderson.
White said his firm does not charge for travel and has an hourly rate of $195. That's compared the $250 rate per hour charged by the previous firm, which also charged for travel, according to White.
Councilmember Cindy Vierra said the bill "shocked me too," but said she expects the monthly fees to go down.
Interim City Manager Lori Waterman also threw her support behind White. "A lot of those charges aren't Doug's charges individually," she said. "He has a lot of resources that are at our disposal."
Supporters of White said the city needs a full-time city attorney to show some stability in the town, which may be audited. The city also has interim leaders in the city manager and police chief jobs.
Price said he'd prefer the city go through the "normal order" of asking law firms to bid for the full-time position. He also responded to the big May bill by calling it "a bunch" of money.
"I accept Mr. White's explanation of how these charges came about," he said. "Still, it's a hard pill to swallow and it's difficult when we're in the difficult financial situation we are."