Ramos: Missoula City Council shouldn’t let law firm ‘run wild with taxpayer dollars’

Jesse Ramos began work as the Ward 4 Missoula City Council member in January.

Missoula City Councilman Jesse Ramos on Monday night defended his quest to scrutinize the city’s bills from Boone Karlberg law firm, saying council members are duty bound to “not let these corporations run wild with taxpayer dollars.”

Since winning the Ward 4 council seat last November, Ramos has repeatedly asked to see copies of all invoices submitted by Boone Karlberg, which represented the city of Missoula in its takeover of Mountain Water Co.

Until he is given those documents, Ramos said, he will continue to vote “no” on all payments to the law firm. Now, he is pursuing the request via lawyer Quentin Rhoades.

In remarks to his fellow council members and the audience on Missoula Community Access Television, Ramos said he has a “deep sense of duty” to his constituents, whom he believes deserve to know how their tax dollars were spent in the multi-year condemnation case.

“We have been approving thousands and thousands of dollars, and I still have not been able to examine these documents and see what we are being billed per hour or what services are being performed,” he said.

“It seems wrong,” Ramos said, “and I am trying to speak up, even though it’s not always easy to do.”

Boone Karlberg continues to represent the city in the Mountain Water case, as several issues remain to be resolved. The firm also was tabbed to represent the city in its challenge of the Montana attorney general over gun background checks.

“I know the private sector is out there to make a profit, and sometimes they see a tap with the city, and sometimes they like to take advantage of that,” Ramos said at Monday’s meeting. “It is our job on the City Council to hold folks accountable and not let these corporations run wild with taxpayer dollars.”

And the legal jobs are not bid out, Ramos complained. “They are awarded without competition.”

In her own remarks, Councilwoman Heather Harp told Ramos that she was “going to target” him so he might better understand the reason behind the city’s refusal.

“When it comes to professional fees,” she said, “we don’t bid out professional fees on purpose, whether it’s engineering or legal fees. We would be undercutting the intelligence of the services provided to us. Therefore, they are not subject to bid.”

Ramos, however, linked Boone Karlberg’s selection to $2,600 in donations made to Mayor John Engen’s reelection campaign by attorneys at the firm and their spouses, which he said “brings bad optics to the situation.”

“I just felt obligated to speak up,” he said, “even if it’s wrong. It’s my duty to challenge it and my right, and I look forward to uncovering some of this.”

Earlier this month, Rhoades wrote to City Attorney Jim Nugent suggesting that retainer agreements and billing records paid by a government body cannot be protected by attorney-client privilege, as the city contends.

“This episode would appear to be yet another black eye for financial transparency delivered by the city of Missoula,” Rhoades said in his letter. “It is absurd that attorney fees cannot be reviewed by the taxpayers who paid them.”

The city maintains that billing statements are protected from disclosure because the records contain privileged attorney-client communications, as well as the work product of the attorney.

On Monday, Ramos characterized his request as a constitutional right, provided to all citizens in Article 2, Section 9 of the Montana Constitution.

Titled “Right to know,” Section 9 reads: “No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”

Last week, city communications director Ginny Merriam responded to Rhoades letter by telling Missoula Current: “There’s a great deal that is public information, in that every week for the past number of years, anyone can look at the claims and see how much we paid Boone Karlberg or Perkins Coie,” said Ginny Merriam, the city’s communications director. “We believe the billing statements from the water case are privileged, in part because they often will reveal strategy, and we’re still in litigation.”

No other council members or city officials responded to Ramos at Monday night’s regular council meeting.