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Council Awards Legal Fees in Plaza Lawsuit

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By Jorge Casuso

Editor's note: This story was updated to add that the Coalition had received donations to pay for the legal bill in its lawsuit against the City.

May 12, 2021 -- In a highly unusual move, the City Council on Tuesday voted 6 to 1 to award attorneys fees in a lawsuit challenging the Council's decision last summer to proceed with negotiations over The Plaza project.

The vote saw Councilmembers Kevin McKeown, Gleam Davis and Kristin McCowan -- who voted in July to resume negotiations despite the lawsuit -- surprisingly voting to award $100,000 in legal fees to the plaintiff's attorneys who sued the City over their move.

Equally surprising was the lone opposing vote cast by Councilmember Oscar de la Torre, who along with Phil Brock and Christine Parra had filed declarations in Superior Court last week on behalf of the attorneys seeking fees from the City.

None of the Councilmembers explained their vote on the closed session item that stemmed from a lawsuit last September charging that the City failed to abide by the State's Surplus Land Act by resuming negotiations with The Plaza developer.

After Tuesday;'s vote, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), which filed the lawsuit, issued the following statement.

"It’s unfortunate that the City wouldn’t listen to us, to our lawyers or to the public, compelling residents to ask a court to step in so the City wouldn’t violate the law by continuing to negotiate a development agreement for this wildly unpopular project," the Coalition said in a statement Wednesday.

"As a result, the City will have to pay legal fees over $100,000 to SMCLC’s lawyers to settle this important lawsuit in the public interest.

"No money was sought by SMCLC and the entire settlement constitutes reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in the lawsuit," the Coalition wrote.

The Coalition, which had been raising funds to pay the legal fees, asked donors what they wanted to do with the money.

"This settlement will enable us to reach out to (neighborhood groups), as well as individual donors, to ask whether they want their donation returned, or for those funds to be used by SMCLC," the Coalition wrote.

The money would be used "for future campaigns as we continue to fight for residents to have a seat at the table when important decisions are made by our City."

Interim City Attorney George Cardona said that in the settlement approved by the Council, the City does not admit to the allegations made in the case, nor does it agree with the merits of the attorneys fees.

The claims, Cardona said, were "rendered moot" when the Council voted 4 to 3 in December to end negotiations with Clarett West over the 357,000-square-foot mixed-use project on City owned land.

In the narrow vote, Mayor Sue Himmelrich, the lone Councilmember who opposed continuing negotiations in July, was joined by Brock, de la Torre and Parra one week after they were sworn into office.

To obtain attorneys fees, the Coalition's attorney, Strumwasser & Woocher LLP, would have had to show that the lawsuit was a driver in the Council's decision to drop the suit.

In their declarations supporting the attorneys fees, Brock, de la Torre and Parra all said "one of the key reasons I voted to terminate negotiations was to bring the City into compliance with the Surplus Land Act."

It likely marked the first time Santa Monica Councilmembers made such declarations on behalf of plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the City ("New Councilmembers Support Legal Fees for Attorneys Who Sued the City," May 4, 2021).

The three new Councilmembers had opposed The Plaza project in their successful campaigns for three full-term Council seats last November.

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