The Westfield City Council voted to delay payment of its legal and consulting fees this week for the second month in a row because the accounts are over budget by more than $500,000.
Mike Johns, the city council’s president, said Monday that the city’s administration attorney and consulting accounts had insufficient funds to pay their bills. Though various consultants are paid from those balances, the council and administration lay the blame for those accounts being $516,826 over budget on lawyers’ fees associated with the citywide financial investigation, the city council’s attorney, and ongoing legal battles involving Mayor Andy Cook and Clerk-Treasurer Cindy Gossard.
The council unanimously approved a majority of its claims, except for those related to the financial investigation and attorney invoices.
“It is particularly disturbing to me that the city council is not notified when a department is over budget,” Johns said. “The city council should not have to do forensic accounting to identify when a department is over budget. In the private sector, you pick up the phone, you send an email, you let the person in your company responsible know that you’re going to be over budget.”
Johns requested Mayor Andy Cook come to the next meeting with either an explanation of what funds to charge or a request for an additional budget appropriation.
In July 2020, Cook responded to allegations that Grand Park Sports Campus’ ball diamond manager Bullpen Tournaments had diverted more than $470,000 from the city by appointing consultants from accounting firms BKD CPAs & Advisors, Baker Tilly Municipal Advisors and the Taft Stettinius & Hollister law firm to conduct a review of all city financial practices and accounts.
The city did not immediately respond to a request for the total amount spent on that investigation, so far.
Adding to that investigation’s expenses is Cook and Gossard’s ongoing legal battle.
In January, Cook filed a lawsuit claiming Gossard was not providing the administration appropriate access to information requested as part of the citywide financial investigation. Gossard’s stated position was that she did cooperate, but did so by providing read-only files to ensure the documents weren’t altered or destroyed.
Before settling the matter in June, the incident spawned a second, short-lived lawsuit wherein Cook alleged Gossard instructed city staff to destroy city files.
Westfield City Council Member Jake Gilbert said during a late-August meeting that the running bill for those lawsuits is around $440,000.
“The newest round of lawsuits that will just be getting started are not included in that number,” he said.
In August, the city filed another lawsuit alleging Gossard compromised the city’s data security by hiring an unidentified IT professional to access and download information from three city employees’ computers. Gossard told IBJ she hired the contractor, whose identity she would not reveal, to evaluate software on those computers that she suspected of containing spyware.
Westfield Council Member Scott Willis said during the late-August meeting that he’s concerned about the legal fees.
“The council is probably over budget, the clerk treasurer is probably over budget, the city is probably over budget,” he said. “It has been embarrassing this year how much legal fees this city has incurred, but I don’t see how that correlates to not paying a bill for services rendered.”
The city council approved paying the consultants, but it’s still not certain just which money will be used.
Westfield Council Member Troy Patton said during the council’s budget hearing that he hopes to the city will be able to stay on budget next year since money spent on legal fees could otherwise go to fire and safety, public works or other things that service Westfield residents.
“I hope we all appreciate the fact that legal bills of $1 million benefit nobody. Nobody wins. I don’t care who wins or who loses in a court of law, nobody wins. That money is gone,” he said. “All it is, is so somebody else can pat somebody on the back and say, ‘Hey, good job. You were right. You were wrong.’”