$258,000 deal for attorney

Morgan Hill
– For the second time in six months the Morgan Hill City Council
has agreed to pay City Attorney Helene Leichter in return for a
promise not to sue the city. The two settlements total more than
Morgan Hill – For the second time in six months the Morgan Hill City Council has agreed to pay City Attorney Helene Leichter in return for a promise not to sue the city. The two settlements total more than $258,000.

In the latest settlement, which includes Leichter’s resignation effective July 1, the council has agreed to pay her $233,055.80. The earlier agreement, made in September 2004, required the city to pay Leichter $25,000 and her attorney $15,000. It came on the heels of an accusation by former Councilwoman Hedy Chang that she was having an affair with City Manager Ed Tewes. Both Leichter and Tewes have consistently denied the allegation.

Mayor Dennis Kennedy said at Wednesday’s council meeting that neither Leichter nor city officials would have anything more to say about the latest agreement. He described the parting as “amicable,” but neither he nor councilmen Larry Carr or Mark Grzan returned calls by press time seeking comment on the settlement or impact on the budget.

Mary Wright, an attorney with the San Francisco law firm of Carroll, Burdick and McDonough and who represented Leichter, said neither she nor her client could comment.

The 17-page settlement – negotiated by Kennedy and Councilman Steve Tate – outlines the compensation: $53,750 covers Leichter’s salary and benefits to July 1, $18,055.80 for accrued vacation to July 1 (at $70.73 per hour) and $161,250 “in compensation for alleged physical injury or sickness.” The agreement does not list any description of what the injury or sickness might be.

Tewes said the $161,250 would come from the city’s self-insurance fund. He declined further comment about the settlement.

Tate acknowledged that the settlement’s pricetag would make council’s job more difficult in putting together a budget for the new fiscal year that begins July 1.

“Obviously we are really hurting on our budget,” Tate said. “The council is working very hard to solve the budget problem and don’t need more expenses.”

Councilman Greg Sellers noted that personnel issues at times become budget issues.

“It’s something any organization has to deal with occasionally,” Sellers said Friday. “Dealing with personnel issues the right way often is costly. To not do it properly would be even more costly.”

Leichter’s contract originally expired Sept. 1, 2005. Although Leichter will remain on the city payroll through July 1, she has been “relieved of all job responsibilities and authority effective” April 20, according to the agreement. She has agreed to give the city a status report of all pending legal matters and make herself reasonably available for consultation with the acting city attorney.

Leichter has been on paid leave twice since a scheduled performance review with the council on Feb. 2. She briefly returned to attend a council meeting on March 22, but returned to leave shortly afterward. No one on the council or at City Hall, nor Leichter herself, would comment on why she went on leave. During her absence, the law firm of Jorgenson, McClure, Siegel filled in as acting city attorney, earning $20,000 for its legal work. Council approved a new contract on Wednesday for an additional $37,000.

The September 2004 agreement allowed Leichter to work from home two days a week through the end of the year and to take an additional seven weeks’ vacation.

That money was in compensation “for emotional distress and physical injury.” No details were given on what that physical injury might include.

Leichter agreed at that time not to sue the city over the city’s handling of an accusation of impropriety made against her by Chang.

Local attorney Bruce Tichinin, who has battled with Leichter in the past, reacted strongly to the council paying Leichter not to sue the city.

“It’s an atrocity. It is the sworn professional duty of an attorney to defend his client’s financial interest at every peril to himself or herself,” Tichinin said. “The taxpayers are well rid of her.”

Tichinin said he doesn’t understand why the $161,250 settlement was necessary since any pain and suffering from the claims of the alleged affair were covered in the September payoff.

Leichter’s annual salary is $137,350 plus $400 a month car allowance and other benefits. She also earned three weeks of vacation and 80 hours of administrative leave to make up for working frequently outside of normal business hours. She was hired Sept. 1, 2000.

Leichter was born in Fresno, received her undergraduate degree from Stanford and her law degree from Santa Clara University.