Citing No Performance Issues, Council Replaces City Attorney

After the Menifee City Council emerged from a closed session Wednesday night, deputy mayor Wallace E...

After the Menifee City Council emerged from a closed session Wednesday night, deputy mayor Wallace Edgerton made a point of praising the work of Julie Biggs, who has served as interim city attorney for nearly two years.

"Julie, I would say that in the interim that you served, you did a good job for the council," Edgerton (right) said about Biggs, who represents the law firm of Aleshire & Wynder. "I want to emphasize that any relationship you had with me and all my dealings with you were extremely favorable. You were polite, you were appropriate and you were responsive, and so for the work you've done, I want to go on record as saying I'm really appreciative of it and I thank you."

Curiously, those comments came moments after Mayor Scott Mann announced to the audience that the council had just voted 3-2 to replace Biggs. No, Mann was not one of the three voting to make a change -- but Edgerton was.

You figure it out.

Defending the move by saying "it was obligatory in the original agreement" to accept other applicants for the permanent position at some point, Edgerton didn't give any other reason for the change in an interview after the council meeting. Neither did council member Tom Fuhrman, who voted with Edgerton and Greg August after refusing to recuse himself from the voting process despite being the focus of code violations on his Wooden Nickel Ranch that involved actions taken by Biggs on behalf of the city.

Fuhrman was asked why Biggs was not retained if all the comments from the dais after the announcement praised her performance.

"Everyone's not praising her," said Fuhrman, shown at left with Mann at a previous meeting. "We felt the one we picked would do a better job."

Fuhrman was then asked in what ways he felt Biggs' successor would do a better job.

"That's a long story," Fuhrman said under his breath, leaving the room.

Thus Edgerton was left to explain the change, as well as the selection of the new city attorney hired -- Jeff Melching of the law firm Rutan & Tucker.

The selection of Melching's firm raises questions because of Rutan & Tucker's connection with the City of Irvine, which is at the center of an investigation by the Orange County District Attorney's Office into allegations of lax financial oversight in the Great Park development, a $1.4 billion project begun while a representative of Rutan & Tucker was representing Irvine as its city attorney

According to a report in the Orange County Register, an audit found discrepancies in travel expenses, design changes made without staff approval, double-billing and other questionable practices. Rutan & Tucker was not specifically mentioned in that report, but the City of Irvine terminated its agreement with Rutan & Tucker in March of 2013, only to re-hire the firm five months later.

Edgerton was asked in a post-meeting interview whether he was concerned about hiring a city attorney representing a firm involved in such a controversy.

"Yes," he said. "We asked a battery of questions to make sure there was no relationship with Melching. That was the decision in the room. There were a couple other situations that could've gone with a 4-1 or 5-0 vote. I was ready to go with either one of them. I wasn't wedded to Ruttan & Tucker."

Biggs and her law firm of Aleshire & Wynder were among the other three firms selected as finalists and considered in Wednesday's closed session, which followed an eight-hour closed session Aug. 23 that failed to produce a decision. The other two firms were not named.

Edgerton also was asked to explain his prior relationship with Melching (right), who was included in an Aug. 5 email sent by Edgerton to several residents and others, urging them to attend the Aug. 6 meeting and "speak to the issue" of a "possible motion to place a moratorium on more apartments and high density housing" in Menifee.

Edgerton said he included Melching on the email list by mistake and that he had Melching's email address saved on his computer only because Melching was one of the candidates being considered for the new city attorney of Menifee.

"That was an error," he said. "When we interviewed the city attorneys, a couple sent back thank you notes. Melching sent back notes to me and Greg (August) because we were on the ad hoc committee. When I went to type in certain people ... you hit a letter. If you hit an A you get a string of people, and you have to look back up (at the screen). I've got trifocals. He wasn't the only mess I made there."

That still left unanswered a question: If no one other than Fuhrman had expressed dissatisfaction with Biggs' performance, why was Biggs (left) replaced?

"That's a closed session matter," he said. "If you've got somebody and they have a problem, you remove them for cause. There was no cause in this situation. It was obligatory in the original agreement to go out for an RFP."

According to the minutes of the Dec. 12, 2012 city council meeting in which Biggs was hired, she was to serve "in an interim capacity until completion of the recruitment for a permanent city attorney and related law firm. She and her firm will be eligible to participate in that recruitment as well."

The recent Request for Proposal (RFP) was a fulfillment of that condition, Edgerton said. He also said there was no reason to wait another two months until after the election, when a new makeup of the city council might result in another change of city attorneys.

"If you talk about a city manager or city attorney, any city council can change the city manager or city attorney every single meeting, if that's what they want to do," he said. "In this case, it wasn't something Julie did that prompted the RFP. That was in the original agreement. It should've happened six months ago, but we've been going through this process. It would be unfair to cast a negative light on Julie Biggs."

Edgerton was then asked whether he felt the average citizen would perceive Biggs' dismissal as casting a negative light on her. Gesturing to the now empty seats in the audience section of the council chambers, he responded.

"Well, how somebody in here may want to look at it is not as important as how people look at it professionally," he said. "If you're talking about coaches, city managers, city attorneys, they revolve a lot, and how they revolve and under what circumstances is very important for their professional career. And to have somebody not selected in an RFP is in no way a negative upon that coach, city manager or city attorney."

When asked whether he thought his response showed a lack of respect for the average resident compared to the "professionals," Edgerton said he misspoke.

"I did not mean to say that," he responded. "If you just want to get me, you can get me. If you're out to get Edgerton, you can get Edgerton. It's your paper; you can write it any way you want if that's what you want to do.

"Everybody at that table thought that Jeff Melching's ability to articulate his position and for breadth and depth of his organization, what he could provide for this city, presented the best position that we could take. Everybody thought Jeff Melching gave the best presentation."

But the vote was 3-2, Edgerton was reminded.

"True, two people didn't vote for Jeff Melching," Edgerton said, referring to Mann and council member John Denver. "It was very complicated. If you're talking about people in the back room, there were other considerations, too. There were considerations other than Julie and for people other than Jeff Melching. Some of those votes were 4-1. I would've liked to have seen a 5-0 vote and that's what I pushed for. We didn't get it."


Wallace Edgerton 4528054428440381645

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