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Sooke council blows budget for legal advice

Jul 10 2012

The District of Sooke has spent $120,000 seeking legal advice in the past six months, a large portion of which has gone to reviewing partner agreements with private companies.

Council has already overspent the $100,000 budgeted for legal services, which has Mayor Wendal Milne concerned about how high the total cost could escalate in the coming months.

Of the legal spending, about $35,000 was related to the Prestige Hotel, the Times Colonist has learned.

Although a Sooke document listing legal costs did not give details about what was being billed for, lawyers did conduct a review of the agreement the district has with the owner of the Prestige Hotel.

That review revealed that Kelowna-based Prestige Hotel and Resorts did not pay its development cost fees before moving ahead with construction of the $50-million waterfront resort in 2009.

In May, council announced Prestige Hotel and Resorts reached an agreement with the municipality in 2009 to defer $660,000 in development cost charges.

The council of the day agreed to a five-year deal to rent conference centre space at the hotel for an annual fee of about $300,000. A deal signed by chief administrative officer Evan Parliament shows that the first years of those payments would be waived and applied to Prestige's development fees.

That deal may be illegal, Milne said after getting advice from the district's solicitor.

Council reviewed several other contracts in order to find better deals for the municipality, Milne said. He said they found "discrepancies" in some agreements and therefore sought a legal opinion.

"There was a significant amount of examination around a couple of the contracts - but we can't comment specifically as to what they are," he said.

Current councillors who were in office at the time of the deal - Herb Haldane, Bev Berger and Maja Tait - said they were not aware of the arrangement.

Milne and his counterparts have also renegotiated a contract with Edmonton-based EPCOR, operator of Sooke's sewage system. Milne said they did not need lawyers to shave about $50,000 off the estimated annual cost of $900,000.

Legal fees have been a contentious issue in Sooke. The previous council signed a five-year agreement to pay a $9,500 monthly retainer to Vancouver-based Lidstone and Company Law Corporation.

The deal was signed in an in-camera meeting last September without going to tender.

Milne and his council in December overturned that agreement and returned to paying for legal services on a case-by-case basis.

Milne said this year's high costs in legal fees will likely decrease once the reviews are completed.

But for this year, he said, legal costs are "too high and much more than we have budgeted," he said.

"At the end of the year, we're going to exceed our budget by a significant amount."


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