Town to ask for invoices with more detail

For invoices it receives
Thu, 10/18/2018 - 7:15pm

An inquiry by The Block Island Times into the amount of money that the town has spent on fighting the Rhode Island Fast Ferry case has prompted a change in the town’s billing policy that will now require more detailed invoices from the attorney working on the case, according to Town Manager Ed Roberge.

The Town of New Shoreham has been involved in a litigation with RIFF for the past four years. Given that, The Block Island Times filed a request for information with the New Shoreham Town Clerk’s office about the total amount of funds spent on that specific legal issue. The Town Clerk’s office said it could not satisfy that inquiry since the town’s attorney on the case, Katherine Merolla, did not submit itemized invoices for services rendered. The Times submitted the request for information to the Clerk’s Office on Sept. 19, and was notified on Oct. 3 that the Clerk’s Office could not furnish the information.

“This will be part of a process directed at collecting more accounting,” said Roberge during a phone interview. “That’s what we will be doing moving forward.”

Merolla, however, said she does submit an itemized invoice for services rendered. 

Merolla told The Times via email that, “Each month a detailed, itemized statement from our law firm is submitted to the town. The statement is itemized by date, attorney, description of the work performed, and time. Since the town solicitor handles hundreds of different matters for the town, a separate bill is not generated for each legal matter/issue. The Town Manager has requested that for two legal matters the firm issue separate statements.”

Roberge said, “For projects that are significant and litigation-based, we’re going to begin itemizing those separately in the invoices. If it’s anything of significance we’re going to start doing that. This is a clear policy change.”

Attorneys were previously permitted to bill the town in a block billing fashion with only the hours and the name of the case, or cases, noted on the statement.

In response to The Times’ request for information, Town Clerk Molly Fitzpatrick issued a statement on Oct. 1 stating that, “The town of New Shoreham does not maintain invoices from the Town Solicitor reflecting the number of hours and dollars billed for legal services rendered in connection with the Rhode Island Fast Ferry case. In addition, the town is not required to compile or reorganize data not maintained by the town in the form requested.”

Fitzpatrick also wrote: “Descriptions of legal services performed in billing statements are exempt from disclosure under the provisions of Rhode Island General Law, as such information relates to the attorney-client relationship between the town and its attorneys, and specifically legal strategy and privileged communications.”

After The Times issued a request to the Finance Department on Sept. 11 seeking the amount expensed on the RIFF case, Finance Director Amy Land said, “The solicitors’ bills for legal services are not currently broken down by case; time related to RIFF and surrounding topics are integrated with all of the other legal business of the town.”

Land furnished The Times with the total billing amounts for Merolla’s Warwick-based firm, Merolla, Accetturo, & Lough, for the fiscal years 2008 to 2018. Merolla, who has served since 2007 and never had a service agreement with the town, is up for reappointment for a one-year term by the Town Council in December.

From fiscal year 2008 to the current fiscal year, Merolla’s firm billed $1,338,729 for legal services. Based on billing amounts from 2015 to 2018, Merolla’s firm averaged about 17 billable hours weekly. The firm billed the town $81,025 for FY 2008, $71,417 for FY 2009, $92,657 for FY 2010, $65,843 for FY 2011, $109,614 for FY 2012, $109,032 for FY 2013, $113,194 for FY 2014, $156,666 for FY 2015, $155,985 for FY 2016, $201,001 for FY 2017, and $182,295 for FY 2018. At the April 2, 2018 Town Council meeting, Merolla noted that her hourly rate is $190. 

Some of the matters that Merolla has been involved in are various matters relating to the Block Island Power Company, the Rhode Island Fast Ferry case, and former Town Manager Jim Lathrop’s severance agreement. Voters authorized the town to purchase two-thirds of BIPCo’s shares on Sept. 30, 2016; The Division of Public Utilities and Carriers granted RIFF with its license on Sept. 22, 2016; Lathrop resigned as town manager on Feb. 8, 2017. These cases have been discussed primarily in closed session by the New Shoreham Town Council.

BIPCo legal services

As for Merolla’s representation of the Block Island Power Company, President Jeffery Wright, told The Times that Merolla is representing the Town of New Shoreham in its legal battle with Sara McGinnes, who owns one-third of BIPCo’s shares, and also performs legal services on behalf of BIPCo. McGinnes is contesting, among other things, the process by which the town purchased two-thirds of BIPCo stock, as well as the town’s appraised value of the one-third share she still owns.  

Wright said Merolla submits an itemized invoice to BIPCo for services rendered. “Each invoice is approved by myself, and (assistant) Tracy (Fredericks), in addition to our accountant, so we are sure to maintain a bright line and not mix costs.”

Wright noted that, “Merolla is the lead attorney on the joint defense on the McGinnes case,” for the town, which involves the Block Island Utility District, which is represented by Partridge, Snow and Hahn.

“Kathy represents the town in the McGinnes case and bills the town accordingly,” said Wright. “(BIPCo’s) attorney for the McGinnes case is John Mancini and he bills us for work on the case.”

Wright said that, “Kathy does some general legal work for BIPCo, like contract reviews, sitting in on Board of Director meetings, administering the fire insurance case for the new building, etc. I think sometimes that can perceived as she represents everyone, but I will say that we are maintaining boundaries in our different representations.”