County spends $72K in legal fees to sue CHM

adouglas@heraldonline.comSeptember 23, 2013 

York County has spent nearly $72,000 in its legal fight with the Culture and Heritage Foundation over donated money and land.

The county’s attorney on Friday said $17,000 was paid to a Columbia law firm before the county council voted in June to sue the foundation. Since then, another $55,000 has been spent on the case. The figures were released after an inquiry from The Herald.

County officials have said the lawsuit ultimately could cost taxpayers up to $250,000.

York County Council sued on June 28 because of the foundation’s decision in 2012 to no longer exclusively support York County museums. One of the county’s goals is to ensure all donations given to the foundation before the mission was changed are used to support York County museums.

The amount spent on legal fees in such a short period should prompt county officials to go back to the negotiating table with the foundation, said York County Councilman Bump Roddey.

“The taxpayers are going to lose all the way around,” he said.

York County filed its suit after settlement talks between the two parties failed.

County officials have refused to release any documents related to the failed settlement attempts. Although some of the documents were given to foundation, the county cites attorney-client privilege and “proposed contractual arrangements” in refusing to release the documents to the public.

The foundation’s attorney has said he does not view the documents as confidential.

The “deal breaker” in earlier negotiations was York County’s demand for a full accounting of the foundation’s spending and assets dating back several years, Roddey said.

In hours of meetings behind closed doors, Roddey said he encouraged the county council to give up on trying to make the foundation “open its books.”

What may have happened years ago, he said, is “water under the bridge” and fighting for an accounting now won’t help York County’s museums.

Still, Roddey voted along with the rest of the council in late June to sue the foundation if it rejected the county’s final settlement offer. Roddey said he voted for the lawsuit as a last result because he wanted the council to be unified in its decision to sue.

The foundation has since tried twice, unsuccessfully, to convince York County Master-in-Equity Jack Kimball to dismiss the case.

Before the lawsuit was filed, York County paid the Columbia-based law firm Nexsen Pruet about $17,000 in legal fees. The firm did not require a retainer fee.

At $305 per hour in legal charges, the county has paid another $54,000 to Nexsen Pruet and $1,200 in other legal costs since the suit was filed.

York County’s regular attorney, Michael Kendree, is not paid above his salary to work on the lawsuit.

Roddey says he warned fellow council members that the cost of suing the foundation would not be worth any potential gains. “I was the one kicking and screaming when we started down this road,” he said on Friday.

Since the lawsuit began, Roddey said, the county has “lost ground” on the issues its fighting for.

After years of squabbling with some county officials, the foundation changed its mission in May 2012--electing to financially support a range of cultural and historical causes. Before that, the foundation solely supported York County’s museums.

One part of the ongoing court fight pertains to hundreds of acres of land donated in 1998 by Jane Spratt McColl--a gift county officials believed was made on behalf of the museum system.

McColl and her family gave the foundation about 400 acres of land. Nearly 60 acres have since been sold for development. The land is located along the Catawba River, near Sutton Road and Interstate 77.

York County wants control over the land and argues that it has a right to McColl’s gift.

But, the foundation filed an affidavit less than two weeks after the suit was filed that shows McColl wants the foundation--not the county--to use the land as it wishes.

The affidavit, Roddey said, puts the county “behind the eight ball” in its suit.

He said he hopes that once the public knows how much taxpayer money has been spent on the lawsuit, residents will begin calling County Council members to express concern over continuing the court battle without trying again to settle.

Roddey says council members have not been given a timeline for how long the lawsuit could drag out. But, he said, every dollar spent by the foundation or the county means a loss to the museums.

Not only is York County already spending an “outrageous” amount on the suit, he said, but the foundation “is spending money from proceeds associated with the gift, to fight for the gift.”

County Councilman Chad Williams says he didn’t like the idea of suing the foundation from the beginning.

“I feel like we’re suing ourselves,” he said, because there are York County citizens on both sides of the lawsuit.

Still, the county is fighting to “protect the assets that belong to the citizens of York County,” Williams said.

County officials made what Williams thought was an acceptable settlement offer that could have kept the two parties out of court, he said.

But the foundation rejected the pre-lawsuit offer. A representative from the organization then asked Chairman Britt Blackwell for more time to negotiate after the council voted to file suit.

The cost of the lawsuit so far isn’t ahead of projections that were given earlier this summer, Williams said, noting that he expected a large portion of the expenses to happen near the beginning of the court battle.

Still, he said, if both sides could agree to start settlement discussions again, he’d be willing to go back to the negotiating table.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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