A $118,000 bill for legal services by Peter Kirsch, an aviation attorney hired by East Hampton Town for advice on airport matters, was set aside last week when members of the town board requested clarification about the work being done.
A resolution offered by Councilman Dominick Stanzione, the board’s airport liaison, who has been working closely with Mr. Kirsch, was tabled. By Tuesday, when the board briefly discussed the matter again, the bill grew to more than $135,000, reflecting services dating through the end of July.
The question, said Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc on Tuesday, is “the correlation between the bill and the direction of town policy.”
“I think there is an issue here . . . as far as, what are we paying for,” Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson concurred. And, he said, “Before I sign off on this bill I want to know why it took us nine months to pay this bill.”
Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, who raised the initial questions, suggesting further discussion by the board, said earlier this week that she was not questioning the quality of services provided by Mr. Kirsch, nor his accounting of them.
“All of these are quite legitimate,” she said of the itemized bills. But, she said, some of the work performed by Mr. Kirsch and his firm, Kaplan Kirsch Rockwell, might not be crucial, or specifically targeted to what the town board hopes to achieve.
For example, she said, portions of the bills are for consultations between Mr. Kirsch and Eric Bregman, another outside attorney hired by the town, who is defending East Hampton in a lawsuit over the airport master plan. Anthony Pasca, an attorney for the East Hampton Aviation Association, was included in those discussions.
“The focused objective was noise abatement, and [the Federal Aviation Administration] versus no F.A.A.,” Ms. Overby said, referring to an effort to pin down how much control the town could wield over use of the airport should it continue to accept F.A.A. grants.
Certainly, Ms. Overby said, the town board should be discussing and directing the scope of the attorney’s work. Board members heard a presentation from Mr. Kirsch earlier this year about noise abatement and federal funding, and told him to continue work on a multi-faceted airport management plan.
Now, Ms. Overby said, “somehow or other, he’s now involved in the lawsuit — rightly or wrongly — and the F.A.A., with the [north shore of Long Island] helicopter route.”
“Is he representing me? Because I haven’t asked him to do that,” the councilwoman said. “My concern is that he works for the town board.”
She acknowledged that having Mr. Kirsch’s involvement in the whole panoply of airport issues could be important. But, she said, “if that’s the case, I just need to put that in my knowledge base, and we need to budget appropriately.”
“Peter is the leading aviation counsel in the United States and is worth every penny we pay him,” Mr. Stanzione said yesterday. “He’s done a great job and made a significant contribution.”
The councilman said that after years of a problematic relationship between the town and the F.A.A., it was important to have someone with Mr. Kirsch’s expertise on aviation management issues help to re-establish a positive relationship with the federal agency, in order, for instance, to get the town’s airport master plan update approved and obtain permission for the airport control tower. He said he welcomes inquiries by other board members.
Ms. Overby also said that the balance due to Mr. Kirsch appears to exceed maximum expenditure amounts stipulated on various resolutions passed by the town board, hiring Kaplan Kirsch Rockwell.
It also exceeds the amount budgeted for 2012 in various airport fund accounts from which, according to the resolutions, the fees are to be paid.
An October 2011 resolution that stated the town board’s desire to continue receiving professional services from Mr. Kirsch did not set a cap on the amount to be spent, stating only that he and the associates at his firm would be paid according to a set fee schedule. A separate resolution passed the same day set a “not to exceed” amount at $35,000.
According to John Jilnicki, the town attorney, the second resolution referred to a specific project, while the first, open-ended, one hired Mr. Kirsch to assist with general airport matters.
Such agreements are normally renewed each calendar year. A bill totaling $120,000 for Kaplan Kirsch Rockwell’s legal services last year was paid in January 2012, Ms. Overby said.
Information about previous invoices from Kaplan Kirsch Rockwell was not available by press time. However, Ms. Overby said that previous payments had included a stay at the 1770 House in East Hampton Village for Mr. Kirsch on a visit here. Now, she said, he stays at a Riverhead hotel when he visits.
In March 2012, the town board approved a resolution to hire Kaplan Kirsch Rockwell, with charges “not to exceed” $35,000 from the town airport fund’s “outside professional” budget line. That resolution was amended in June to charge the fees to a different, “subcontractor” budget line. It also showed an increase in Mr. Kirsch’s hourly fee from $425 to $440 per hour. Partners at his firm were to be paid $365 and $390 per hour, according to the resolution; counsel, $315 an hour; associates, $265 an hour, and paralegals, $120 an hour.
Unpaid invoices for work through June 30 totaled $118,441, according to the resolution that was offered but then tabled last week. The tabled resolution outlines the board’s wishes to continue to have Kaplan Kirsch Rockwell “advise and assist the town” in “matters related to the town airport and federal regulations, and the town’s efforts to gain greater control over air traffic from helicopters and other aircraft arriving and departing the airport.”
It says that Mr. Kirsch and the firm are to be paid in accordance with an attached fee schedule (listing the attorney’s hourly fee at $425) from the airport’s subcontractor budget.
It also authorizes payment of the $118,441, while also resolving that “further expenditures shall be capped at a total sum not to exceed $50,000 without further approval of this board.”
The bill submitted between last week and Tuesday’s meeting included a $16,900 charge for work in July. “If this is the monthly bill,” Ms. Overby said, “then we need to budget for it.”
The invoices submitted by Mr. Kirsch detail time spent on various matters and the charge incurred, for example, $1,000 for a telephone conversation with Councilman Stanzione and John Jilnicki, the town attorney, about “leasing issues and purchase options in the lease,” presumably pertaining to airport land, and “F.A.A. coordination and status of fence grant,” referring to an application made by the town for federal money to design a fence around the airport’s perimeter.
A $440 charge pertained to “review[ing] letter to the editor and comments from opposition groups.” Mr. Kirsch also spent time preparing talking points for a meeting with Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Tim Bishop regarding helicopter routes along Long Island. Charges from February include a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with federal officials, along with Councilman Stanzione, for which the town also paid the councilman’s way.
Ms. Overby said she would like Mr. Stanzione, as liaison to the airport, “to explain to the town why we need to continue” paying for that level of involvement by Mr. Kirsch, and wants to evaluate whether the expenditure is clearly helping the town achieve its goals. It was not obvious, she said, how some of the work performed by Mr. Kirsch on the town’s behalf “is clearly related to the town board’s articulated goals.”
“How do I measure — [what is] the metric of success?” she asked. “We need to decide what is the rational expense.”
Fees for Mr. Kirsch’s services have been charged to two different budget lines in the airport account — one for “outside professional” services, and another for “subcontractors.”
Spending the money in the subcontractor budget line, or from an airport surplus fund, on legal fees could preclude its use on airport improvement projects, which, Ms. Overby said, “pushes the town into taking F.A.A. money.”