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Santa Rosa ordered to pay tax critics’ legal fees

By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Santa Rosa must pay nearly a quarter of a million dollars in attorneys fees and court costs to the homebuilders group that successfully challenged the legality of a city tax on new subdivisions.

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Mark Tansil last week awarded more than $244,000 to the lawyers who represented the Home Builders Association of Northern California, Inc. in its two-year suit against the city.

“The plaintiff’s successful enforcement of fair and free voting rights in Santa Rosa vindicated important constitutional rights that affect the public interest,” Tansil wrote.

The homebuilders were represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm in Sacramento that specializes in property rights cases. The lead attorney in the case, Paul Beard, said he appreciated not only the award but the tone of the judge’s ruling.

“We were particularly pleased by the fact that the judge recognized the gravity of the situation,” Beard said.

The city in 2008 passed a tax surcharge on most new home construction in Santa Rosa as a way to pay for the additional cost of public services, particularly police and fire protection.

The homebuilders sued, claiming the law unfairly forced property owners to give up their voting rights in exchange for the right to subdivide their property. Tansil agreed, finding the law “unfairly tampers with the elective process.”

The City Council in March decided not to appeal the case. The homebuilders then filed a motion for attorneys’ fees. The law allows fees and court costs to be recovered by plaintiffs in certain civil rights cases, Beard said. The law exists to encourage people to sue when their civil rights have been violated, and to discourage government agencies from passing laws or otherwise violating those rights, he said.

“The constitutional nature of the case really justified the fees,” Beard said.

The city argued the group was not entitled to fees and costs because its members had a “significant financial interest in bringing the action,” City Attorney Caroline Fowler said. The city also argued the requested fees were unreasonable.

But Tansil was effusive in his praise of the homebuilders’ attorneys, and said they deserved their fees because they performed an important public service in protecting people’s voting rights.

He called their work “outstanding” and the results “excellent, benefiting not only the client, but the general public as well.”

He awarded the three attorneys in the cases between $350 and $450 per hour, less than they requested. The group had asked for $275,000. He also awarded $894 in costs and rejected $961 in requested travel expenses.

The award will begin earning 7 percent interest from the time he signs the final order, Beard said.

The city’s vigorous defense of the ordinance increased the costs of the case, Beard said.

“They caused a lot of the work that was required,” Beard said.

For the city’s case, however, Tansil showed little regard. The suit was necessary because the city passed the “offending ordinance” and then “steadfastly refused to rescind it.” He said the city’s argument against the fees was “ineffectual” and “vague” and “accomplished nothing.”

Fowler said the City Council will need to decide whether to appeal the ruling. She said she didn’t know how much the city spent defending the law because her office doesn’t track the hours spent on cases where the city is a defendant.





6 Responses to “Santa Rosa ordered to pay tax critics’ legal fees”

  1. Fiscal Conservative says:

    Here’s a thought…

    If you or anyone you know bought a subdivision home in Santa Rosa between 2008 and now, I would think the city owes you/them some cash including the mortgage interest paid on the fiananced amount of the unconstitutional tax-fee and your collection fees.

    If I recall corectly the bogus fees were in the $20,000 neighborhood?

    Personally If I were an attourney, I would be researching a class action suit and a list of subdivision homes sold during this period.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  2. Fiscal Conservative says:

    The city has been using unconstitutional fees for decades that I am aware of. These fees are nothing more than the ‘tax surcharge’ that was the point of this case. Rebember last week the discussion of garbage trucks and city streets? This is a huge win for all of us!

    I agree with Peter’s statements.
    Personally,In my dealings with the City Of Santa Rosa, there has been a complete lack of integrety on their part, time and time again.

    This lawsuit is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope more claims are brought forward. This dictatorship needs to end.

    Also, an excellent job by Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Mark Tansil. You Sir are a patriot for upholding the Constitution and have earned the trust that we have given you.

    Tyrany lost. Today Freedom, Liberty and Justice has prevailed!

    Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  3. Peter B. says:

    I hope that someone in the City of Santa Rosa is reading the comments board here.

    And if they are, I have the following comment.

    You intentionally wrote local legislation that you knew was of dubious constitutional legality.

    You attempted to bully the opposing side in the litigation by pulling out all the stops on your position.

    You lost by default because you knew you would lose even upon appeal.

    Now, you attempt to balk at paying the expenses of the innocent party that YOU created through your illegal governmental actions.

    I suggest you pay the attorney fees of the Builders group and then learn from your mistakes. Government is not a dictator. You must learn to live within the law yourselves.

    Santa Rosa has a poor track record of leading by example when it comes to trustworthiness and integrity.

    Pay up. Shut up. Learn from your mistakes, City of Santa Rosa. Nobody trusts local government any longer. Every act you engage in is to self promote or self congratulate or to self enrich.

    Thumb up 28 Thumb down 2

  4. Mike says:

    Right on Brother Madigan!!!

    It is past time these petty bureaucrats paid for their mistakes that end up costing we taxpayers hundreds of thousands of needlessly spend tax dollars.

    May this bureaucrat go on to greater glories working for another governmental agency probably at the federal level where they really know how to spend money, writing and defending nonsensical laws.

    It is sure great living in the socialist republic of Sonoma County.

    Thumb up 23 Thumb down 4

  5. Beef King says:

    A victory for free Americans!
    Clearly, this is a huge loss for ‘Progressive’ attempts to take Santa Rosa into the dumpster of marxism.
    The lesson? Tampering with voting rights will always be a losing position.
    The comment that the City Attorney made about not tracking taxpayer dollars spent is enough to fire the whole office.

    Thumb up 35 Thumb down 6

  6. Dave Madigan says:

    Let me get this straight….the City lost the court case and decided not to appeal the decision. But now they don’t like the fact that they have to pay legal fees and court costs so they might appeal that decision?

    If the City does appeal the court cost decision, the City will spend even MORE money to defend a lost lawsuit. That makes PERFECT sense!

    Who in the City Attorney’s office wrote the original ordinance? Who in the City Attorney’s office wrote the arguments against the court costs? The arguments that the Judge said were: “ineffectual” and “vague” and “accomplished nothing.”?

    Who in the City Attorney’s office will stand up and admit responsibility for the waste of taxpayer dollars in this situation?

    Who in the City Attorney’s office will be fired for inneffectual/vague work that accomplished nothing?

    Thumb up 44 Thumb down 2

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