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When Council members sue each other, should KC pay both law firms?

Kansas City’s Finance and Audit Committee endorsed an ordinance today to pay the Shughart Thomson law firm up to $100,000 to defend the city against a lawsuit filed by Mayor Pro Tem Bill Skaggs.

But the committee balked at also paying Skaggs’ lawyer, Dennis Owens, even though Skaggs says he had received a verbal promise that Owens would be paid.

The full council is scheduled to vote next week on the payment to Shughart Thomson – and we probably haven’t heard the last of the request to pay Owens.

Shughart Thomson so far has billed $56,956. Owens has billed $38,796. Appeals could bring the total bill for both sides, billing at $250 per hour, close to $150,000.

Skaggs and resident J.B. Winterowd sued the council majority over the vote last December to extend City Manager Wayne Cauthen’s contract over Mayor Mark Funkhouser’s objections. They argue the vote violated the city charter, which they believe gives the mayor sole power to introduce an ordinance on such a contract extension.

Owens originally announced he would be representing Skaggs pro bono (for no pay). The council majority hired Jack Campbell and Shughart Thomson to defend against that lawsuit. The council won at the trial level, but Owens has appealed, and the case is now before the Missouri Court of Appeals.

Skaggs told the committee today that shortly after the lawsuit was filed, he agreed to a “60-day cooling off period,” and he believed that in exchange for that concession, he got a promise that the city would pay his lawyer. Skaggs said there’s an important constitutional issue at stake in his lawsuit, and it’s important for the city to get the charter clarified.

City Attorney Galen Beaufort says he told Skaggs and Owens that, because Owens is representing a city council member on a question about the city charter, he could identify a public purpose for paying those fees. But Beaufort says he also pointed out that he had no funding for such a purpose or authority to make such an appropriation.

Councilwoman Jan Marcason said the council voted to pay Shughart Thomson, but never approved paying Owens. She said the city’s budget is already cut to the bone, and no money was budgeted for such a legal expense.

Councilman Ed Ford also objected to paying Owens, saying it would be extremely rare for the city to pay both sides in a lawsuit. He said if Owens prevails on appeal, he could seek a court order to get paid.

“There’s a difference between paying the attorney who defends the city, and paying the attorney who sues the city,” he said.

But Skaggs says he was left with the impression that his attorney would be paid, and the city should honor that deal.

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