San Diego may have won the public-relations battle over last summer’s Fourth of July fireworks, but environmental lawyer Marco Gonzalez could get the last laugh — on his way to the bank.

October 20, 2011
San Diego Union Tribune
By Mike Lee

“If you don’t sue, you don’t get results,” says attorney Marco Gonzalez, who works on various environmental causes. — Charlie Neuman

Gonzalez this week submitted a bill in San Diego Superior Court asking the city to pay $756,132 in fees related to the fireworks litigation. He said the bill is justified because he prevailed in a case that helped enforce “significant environmental and statutory rights” through the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, which is upheld by citizen suits.

The documents also said the case “conferred a substantial benefit on the general public,” particularly beachgoers who may be harmed by fireworks-related pollution. And Gonzalez said the case presented a substantial challenge because it generated “throngs of hate mail and threatening phone calls.”

City officials said they will oppose Gonzalez’s claim at a Nov. 18 court hearing about the fees.

“The request is unreasonable,” said a statement by deputy city attorney Glenn Spitzer. “The city will challenge (Gonzalez’s) entitlement to fees as well as the reasonableness of the amount.”

Alex Roth, a spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders, criticized the billing papers which cite him by name.

“Apparently Marco wants extra money because he thinks I was mean to him in the press,” Roth said in a statement. “I’d call his request completely ridiculous, but that would probably provoke him into demanding an additional half-million dollars.”

Gonzalez could not be reached Thursday, but he detailed his arguments in more than 30 pages of paperwork filed with the court this week. They include a supporting statement by a CEQA lawyer in San Francisco who said the rates in Gonzalez’s bill were consistent with or lower than industry standards.

His legal bill is part of a broader debate over lawsuits that some see as shakedowns and others say generally work in the public’s interest.

Orange County lawyer John Montevideo, president of the Consumer Attorneys of California, said citizen lawsuits are an important part of the legal landscape.

“When it comes to areas like CEQA … there are going to be folks who are trying get around it and an abuse it,” he said. “If you take away the attorney-fee provision, you essentially take away the enforcement.”

He said the court is in the best position to determine whether Gonzalez’s bill is reasonable. “We have to trust the system and the judge to do the right thing,” Montevideo said. “The court has the power, especially under these circumstances. She could say ‘No way.’ ”

At the Civil Justice Association of California in Sacramento, president Kim Stone said attorney-fee provisions are designed to reward lawyers who not only serve their client but the broader public. However, she said fee-driven lawsuits have become too common statewide.

“You will get cases of dubious value or distinction, where attorney’s fees really are the primary motivation,” she said. “My hunch is that most of the city residents are going to be happy about the (fireworks) show … and the lawyer asking taxpayers to pay $750,000 for a nuisance suit might not be the kind of benefit that San Diego residents think should be animating California law.”

Stone said it’s better policy to have public prosecutors or regulators enforcing laws against possible wrongdoers because they “are more likely to be motivated by a sense of justice than to make money.”

Gonzalez, a partner at Coast Law Group in Encinitas, is among the best-known environmental attorneys in the region in part because he relishes challenging the status quo and often takes on high-profile cases. His targets over the last decade include a faulty sewage treatment plant run by the federal government and a seawater desalination plant proposed for Carlsbad.

None of his campaigns have generated more public interest than the one to force regulation of fireworks as pollutants, particularly when they are shot over water.

The issue erupted in 2010 when Gonzalez’s Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation sued the city over permitting the annual La Jolla fireworks show and pollution threats to a sensitive marine area nearby.

Superior Court Judge Linda Quinn extinguished that suit just days before the event but Gonzalez returned to court this year claiming that San Diego had not followed CEQA. Quinn sided with Gonzalez in May, saying the La Jolla show and thousands of other city-permitted events needed evaluation under the environmental law because of how the city codes were written.

She then put her ruling on hold so the La Jolla event could go off as planned. In response, the San Diego City Council recently voted to alter code language and avoid CEQA reviews for most events.

As the case heated up, Sanders railed against Gonzalez, calling the litigation “an abuse of the laws that has turned this into some type of sham.” Roth characterized it as “nothing more than one attorney’s sad attempt to line his pockets with legal fees.”

Public sympathies seemed to lie with organizers of the La Jolla show, who reported a spike in national support and injection of funds for their cause in May.

Fast forward a few months, and Gonzalez said in a letter Wednesday to City Council members that the city’s “apparent unwillingness to reach a settlement” has left the environmental foundation “no option but to file this motion” for attorneys’ fees.

The bill was based on commercial rates at Coast Law Group, which range from $285 an hour for junior lawyers to $475 an a hour for partners. Gonzalez reported spending roughly 400 hours on the lawsuit, and other attorneys at the firm collectively spent more than 500 hours for a bill of $360,707, not counting various fees for associated parts of the case.

Gonzalez asked Quinn to double that amount based on factors such as the firm having risked no payday if it not prevail. The payment request also cited the “insults and negative publicity in the media” and the statewide precedent set by the case.

“As a public interest attorney, I am keenly aware that fee recoveries in cases such as these typically come from respondent taxpayer funds,” Gonzalez said in Tuesday’s request for payment. “It is my consistent practice to to seek to minimize attorneys’ fees liability by engaging respondents in meaningful and early settlement discussions.”

Gonzalez said at one point he offered the City Council to cap his fees at $200,000 if it would settle the case. Now it will be up to Quinn to figure out how much Gonzalez should get paid.

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