City hires veteran litigator as counsel

By: Tanya Mannes

Leslie Devaney, a tough litigator who once ran against Michael Aguirre for San Diego city attorney, has been hired as city counsel for Del Mar.

The selection of Devaney came after the Del Mar City Council conducted interviews in April with representatives of five firms who competed in a bidding process.

The council met Monday in closed session to discuss finalists for the position. Afterward, Del Mar Mayor Crystal Crawford reported that the council voted to select Devaney, of the law firm Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz. She will replace City Attorney Tamara Smith, who retired last year.

Crawford said Devaney, a former executive assistant city attorney for San Diego, has the experience the city needs to handle a host of legal issues.

“She’s very knowledgeable, very experienced and very creative,” Crawford said. “All cities, during these challenging times, can benefit from creative team members.”

Devaney, 50, is known as an aggressive attorney who has represented high-level employees in personnel disputes with public agencies. Most recently, she represented Arthur Gonzalez, the former chief executive of the Tri-City Healthcare District, in his dispute with the district board after it put him on leave in December. In April, Gonzalez accepted a severance deal worth more than $1 million in cash and benefits.

Del Mar won’t have Devaney full time. She will continue serving as the city attorney for Murrietta and as general counsel to the Southeastern Economic Development Corp.

Her tentative start date is July 1. Devaney said she’s excited to work with the Del Mar council. “They seem to be a very bright and passionate group, including the city manager,” Devaney said. “They care about their community.

“Anything I can do to assist them in the challenges (ahead), I look forward to that,” Devaney said.

The San Diego native said of Del Mar: “Even though I don’t live within the city limits, I feel like it’s my city.”

In 2004, Devaney ran for San Diego city attorney against Aguirre and lost by a margin of less than 1 percentage point.

She began her career with the San Diego City Attorney’s office in 1985, and after seven years left to become a senior litigator for New York-based American International Group (AIG), a high-risk insurer with offices in San Diego. She rejoined the City Attorney’s Office in 1996 as executive assistant city attorney, leaving the office after Aguirre was elected.

Del Mar, the smallest city in the county, faces a number of projects with complex legal issues, such as coastal development. “Leslie has some very qualified folks on her team to deal with coastal and environmental issues,” Crawford said.

The city is monitoring the upcoming expansion of its largest property owner, the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which sits in a coastal zone. The fairgrounds is working on a draft of an environmental impact report for up to $300 million in new facilities, including a condominium-hotel and new exhibit halls.

Crawford said, “Fairgrounds issues are always important because they’re the largest land owner in the city.”

Del Mar also faces legal issues related to an upcoming revision of zoning codes to stimulate downtown revitalization, Crawford said. The changes will need to comply with the city’s existing laws, which mandate community input and a public vote on significant zoning changes.

Del Mar’s previous city attorney, Smith, was with the firm McDougal, Love, Eckis, Smith & Boehmer and had represented Del Mar since 1999. After her departure, the city continued its contract with that firm on an interim basis. The amount of Devaney’s contract has not yet been finalized because city officials are negotiating the details. The city has budgeted $198,000 for city attorney services for the fiscal year that begins July 1, City Manager Karen Brust said.

The proposed fiscal 2009-10 general fund budget is $9.13 million.

Crawford said the council asked that this contract be a fixed amount to cover all but specialized legal services. Past contracts were based on a retainer fee plus hourly billing. During the past four years, the city attorney contract has been an average of $254,140 a year, budget documents show.

Crawford said the fixed contract will provide more stability and save the city money. “It’s another example of how the city of Del Mar is trying to do more with less,” she said.