Grantwood Village officials discuss seeking new law firm

Contract with village attorney set to expire in three months.


With attorney fees for the current fiscal year exceeding $27,000, Grantwood Village officials recently discussed whether the village should contract with another law firm.

The Board of Trustees was presented last week with a budget proposal for fiscal 2011 that significantly reduces village revenues and expenditures from estimated fiscal 2010 levels.

Under the proposed fiscal 2011 budget, Grantwood Village would see estimated revenues of $363,700 — $17,345 less than projected fiscal 2010 revenues of $381,045. The village would spend a flat $363,000 in fiscal 2011 — $8,280 less than the expected $371,280 in expenditures for fiscal 2010.

The board must adopt next fiscal year’s budget by July 1.

Trustees and some residents at the April 20 board meeting questioned whether the village could reduce its legal costs to avoid cutting other services, such as county police protection.

To date, Grantwood Village, with a population of 883, has spent $27,302.50 for attorney fees in fiscal 2010, according to Board of Trustees Treasurer Cathy Forand.

That breaks down to $21,928 for general professional services and $5,374.50 for court costs.

The total amount represents roughly 7 percent of the $371,280 in expected fiscal 2010 expenditures.

In fiscal 2009, Grantwood Village spent $48,471.20 in attorney fees — $36,938.20 for general professional services, $11,533 for court costs and roughly 12 percent of the $406,939 the village spent that year.

By comparison, the city of Crestwood, population 11,863, budgeted $120,000 in 2009 and $110,000 this year for legal services. Green Park, population 2,666, budgeted $80,000 for legal services in both 2009 and 2010. Huntleigh, population 323, paid $10,800 in legal fees for 2009.

The board last July approved an 11-month contract with Village Attorney and Prosecutor Jeff Duke, who has served the village since 2006.

Under his current contract, which expires in three months, Duke is paid a monthly retainer of $750 and charges $175 an hour for professional services — 6 percent more than the $165 an hour he charged under his previous contract.

“With our legal fees, they’re way out of whack …,” Board of Trustees Clerk Nancy Humes said at last week’s board meeting. “I talked with (the village of) Marlborough, and they budget 1 percent — about $8,000 a year. Huntleigh’s about $10,000. Rock Hill’s about $20,000. So for us to be at a $40,000 budget, that needs to come down to eight, nine, 10 … But it is way out of control.

“And we’ve had no luck stopping it at all for a year. Zero,” she added. “And I don’t know the best answer. We’ve tried to find and propose another firm, and we cannot get a majority vote from the board. So those legal fees are going to persist. You can’t stop people from picking up the phone and calling the attorney and the attorney charging you … If someone keeps calling the attorney, we’re never going to stop it.”

Street and Building Commissioner Michael Boone noted at one point the village nearly switched attorneys a couple of years ago, but a trustee — who he did not name — believed Duke was the best choice for the village, and the rest of the board agreed. He said he would support switching legal services if the board first interviewed at least three other law firms.

Asked by a resident which trustee frequently calls Duke, Humes said, “(Board Chairman) Bob Prebil calls a lot. We’ve asked and begged: Please call all the trustees before you pick up the phone to call the attorney. It never happens.”

Later in the meeting, village resident Garvin Marty told trustees that it was common for the head of a business or entity to consult with legal counsel.

“When I was running a business, I used to call my lawyer all the time and talk to him … ,” Marty said. “Whether this gentleman who is our lawyer is the best choice or not, I think that’s a decision the board has to make, but I do think we can’t get down to pennies and nickels about what somebody did that was wrong.

“… Don’t you think the chairman has to talk with the lawyer about a lot of legal matters pertaining to this village?”

Forand said, “I don’t understand how we can have that many legal matters in a village this size …”

“… I don’t think from a realistic standpoint we can say: You can’t talk to this guy. That’s what he’s there for,” Marty said. “And if he’s not doing the job for us, we get somebody else … I’m just saying in everyday life, when you’re out in the business world, you’ve got to do a lot of different things to make things go.

“… I think what needs to be done is this group needs to become a functioning group, and if you’re unhappy with Bob Prebil, if you’re unhappy with this man (Duke) and if you’re unhappy with the next thing, when the next election comes, make some big changes,” he added. “But right now you’ve got 12 months that you’ve got to effectively operate for Grantwood Village. And all this petty crap doesn’t mean anything. It’s what you’re going to do to help police this operation for the next 12 months. And that stuff should be gone.”

“It’s gone. We’re moving forward,” Humes said. “But we have to move forward and cut our attorney bill from $40,000 a year. It cannot be $40,000 a year and operate effectively. That’s all we’re bringing to the table.”

Duke has been criticized recently by Forand and Humes for charging the village for what they contend was a personal legal matter involving Prebil’s grandson.

In late February, Forand and Humes called on the chairman to resign after they say he used his elected status to convince Duke to drop misdemeanor assault and stealing charges against Prebil’s grandson after an incident at Grant’s Farm last July.

Duke billed the village $87.50 for correspondence with Prebil and the village court clerk several days after the incident but has maintained the matter was village business. He has said Prebil’s grandson’s case was not prosecuted because the associated paperwork never reached village jurisdiction from county police.

Prebil has said he did not intend for the village to be billed for the incident but has declined to resign. He presented Forand with an $87.50 check at the board’s March meeting.

But Humes last week took issue with Duke’s March bill to the village for professional services. The total bill initially was $3,602.50, including $2,852.50 for services and the $750 monthly retainer.

However, the invoice also included two discounts: $750 for the retainer and $875 — 10 times the $87.50 Duke billed the village last July. Therefore, the village actually was billed $1,977.50 for March.

Humes said all items on the bill relating to Prebil’s grandson should be discounted.

She also questioned other charges, such as phone calls between Duke and unnamed trustees, and with Prebil regarding the April 20 meeting agenda.

Prebil was absent from last week’s meeting, which he announced at the previous board meeting.

“This bill is $2,800 and I feel a lot of it is due to hiding this ticket, losing this ticket, talking with Prebil about it. I see it as about an $840 bill versus a $2,800 bill,” Humes said, noting the village already owed $770 for court costs that month. “With discussions with trustees, there’s no names of trustees. It looks like there’s a duplicate of talking to Mr. Prebil about the upcoming agenda and he’s not even here.”

Forand said because Duke credited the village with the amount he charged last July, he should accept the check Prebil presented last month or return it to the chairman.

“I can’t get paid by Bob,” Duke replied. “That was a village matter, that was not a Bob matter. It was a ticket that was written in the village and I would prosecute that like any matter in the village, just for the record.

“It’s always my discretion as the attorney to discount bills and so the record should reflect a discount at the traffic court of $87.50,” he added. “That has nothing to do with Bob, that was just my choice. And then I also discounted the regular village bill 10 times that amount, $875, and also I discounted the monthly retainer which under contract I’m entitled to take: $750.”

Humes said, “I don’t think anything around Prebil’s grandson should be charged to the village.”

Duke replied, “Most of those conversations I had with Bob were just advising him about … what his legal rights as chairman and his duties are under the village ordinances about how he could proceed.”

“How he could proceed with what?” Forand asked.

“With regard to the procedures and all the discussions you all were having against him. Whether he needed to resign, legally, those sorts of things … I would advise any trustee that way,” Duke said.

“Can you tell us how you advised him?” Forand said.

“I think that’s privileged information between the board and me,” Duke said.

“Well, we are the board,” Humes replied.

“I understand,” Duke said, adding, “Well, he was not legally obligated to resign.”

The board subsequently approved the March legal bill 3-0, with Prebil and Police Commissioner Glenn Biffignani absent.