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Can Mendo Afford County Counsel Curtis?

Today we add to the Major’s Major Failures and Screw Ups by the Board of Supervisors the Board’s gifting of a huge pay increase to County Counsel Christian Curtis. Curtis is now the highest paid public attorney in Mendocino County. And also one of the least competent.

Last December Curtis set a new standard for incompetence by screwing up his own pay raise! Later in the same meeting (after the Major fired off a correction notice for the obvious Brown Act violation) Curtis took a second shot at approving his pay raise, only to fail again. The Supes were forced to come back at a subsequent meeting and rescind the illegally approved pay raise. Then re-agendize the item with the help of an expensive San Francisco law firm so that the proper proper procedure was followed. It was the first time in Mendocino County history that a Brown Act violation notice had been upheld and corrective action taken.

After twice botching his own pay raise, sources close to the Board say Curtis refused to make a third attempt, but threatened to quit unless the Supes approved the raise. Faced with Curtis’s extortionate demand, the Supes meekly rolled over. Which explains why they were forced to hire the SF-based outside counsel to advise them on how to increase (legally) the exorbitant compensation of their incompetent legal adviser. 

Giving in to County Counsel Curtis’s demands is further proof (as if any were needed) that this is the weakest and least qualified Board of Supervisors in modern memory. The Board, with only an occasional deviation by Third Dist Supe John Haschak, votes lockstep approval for whatever’s put in front of them. Including unlimited funds for outside counsel to defend cases that previous County Counsels handled in house. 

Just one case, former Ag Commissioner Harinder Grewal’s wrongful termination and discrimination lawsuit, has cost the County $600,000 for outside legal fees and it hasn’t even gone to court yet. (Now scheduled for September.) The County will likely shell out hundreds of thousands more for damages, plus Grewal’s attorney fees, once the County loses or settles the suit. A competent County Counsel would have settled the suit years ago for a fraction of the cost of fighting it. 

More recently, Curtis also botched the Amanda Carley case against the County and her former boyfriend, the recently fired Ukiah Chief of Police Noble Waidelich. Curtis attempted to get the case dismissed because after five years it still hadn’t gone to trial. What Curtis didn’t know was that the five year filing deadline had been extended six months because of Covid. So instead of the case being dismissed on a technicality involving lapsed dates, it’s now set for trial. And don’t be surprised if Curtis asks the Board to hire outside counsel.

Judge Jeanine Nadel (who was County Counsel before her appointment to the bench) was unimpressed with Deputy County Counsel Brina Blanton’s complaint last month that she’d have to spend “all her working hours” in discovery and getting ready for the September 28 trial date. After 5 years, 3 months isn’t enough prep time for the trial? 

Nadel pointedly noted that when she was County Counsel she “was very aggressive” in defending the County. And with fewer attorneys. And (she might have noted) without expensive outside counsel. Nadel noted that Curtis was present in the Choutroom and told Blanton that when she was in their position she “worked hard and wiped out the plaintiff.” 

Merits of the Carley case aside, it’s hard to overlook the incompetence of County Counsel Curtis. If Curtis and his stable of attorneys handle cases, they usually lose. But when Curtis hires outside counsel, the County pays through the nose. And still usually loses. 

Which brings us to the pointless and costly legal spat between the Sheriff and the Supervisors. Curtis instigated the fight on orders from former then-CEO Carmel Angelo. Sheriff Kendall earned Angelo’s ire by announcing he would no longer meet with her because of “trust issues” — meaning the Sheriff was tired of being lied to. Curtis allowed the Supes to believe they could personally bill the Sheriff for exceeding his ordinary but underfunded overtime costs. And that they could strip the Sheriff of his IT function and fold it into the unsecure County computer system. 

Sheriff Kendall, realizing he needed an attorney he could trust, sought to hire long-time Ukiah attorney Duncan James. The duplicitous Curtis variously argued that there was a conflict, then argued their wasn’t. Over the course of several Board meetings (in closed session) and five or six court hearings, Curtis finally conceded the Sheriff was entitled to his own attorney. One that he could trust. But not Duncan James. (Who happens to also represent former Ag Commissioner Grewal.) 

After numerous court hearings and more than 100 court filings, the issues with the Sheriff have still not been resolved. In fact, they have not been discussed with the Board. The only issue under discussion now is whether the Sheriff has the right to an attorney of his own choosing. Or must he accept one picked by County Counsel Curtis? (So far the Sheriff has not budged on the subject.)

One Comment

  1. George Dorner July 8, 2022

    Let’s see. County Counsel’s role in government is to refer any vexing legal questions to outside counsel. It would be much simpler to contract with this outside counsel, and dispose of county counsel altogether.

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