Palm Springs and COD still in limbo over lawyer conflict of interest waiver

  • On November 18, the Palm Springs council voted in favor of hiring Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley.
  • A month later, the city says it has not received any exemption.

Palm Springs continues to use an outside law firm to represent it on matters relating to College of the Desert, as the city has yet to strike a deal with the school and law firm Best, Best. & Krieger on a possible conflict of interest.

Palm Springs City Council last month voted unanimously to allow the city to hire Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley to represent it on COD matters. City officials have expressed concern that the college has suspended plans for a Palm Springs campus and have complained that college leaders have not communicated.

Palm Springs City Attorney Jeffrey Ballinger wrote in a note to council that the city was looking to hire an outside law firm because state ethics rules would bar his firm, Best, Best & Krieger, to represent the city on the case while another lawyer with his firm provides legal services to COD. This lawyer, Carlos Campos, is simultaneously a prosecutor for the city of Coachella.

Ballinger said COD could provide the city with a written waiver stating that it would allow the city to use him as a lawyer. Ballinger said this is common in such situations where the oppositiong parties are represented by the same cabinet. However, while the city contacted COD to provide such a waiver, COD did not do so on the day of the council meeting, November 18.

During the meeting, the board rerequested that the city contact COD again to provide the waiver. At the same time, the council hired Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley for all the legal services needed in the interim.

Then-mayor Christy Holstege called it “really upsetting to have to use taxpayer money just to find out what is going on with our taxpayer’s money.”

College of Desert Superintendent / President Martha Garcia.

COD Superintendent / President Martha Garcia told the Desert Sun on Tuesday that she and two COD directors discussed the waiver and agreed to it.

“I want to communicate very frankly that the trustee [Aurora] Wilson, trustee [Rubén] Pérez and I discussed it with the lawyer, and obviously it’s taken into consideration, and no action was taken by the law firm, obviously, but we accepted the waiver, ”Garcia said.

When asked by The Desert Sun if that meant a decision regarding the waiver was now in law firm court, Garcia said “yes.”

The designs for the College of the Desert's Palm Springs campus were unveiled during Modernism Week 2020.

Campos says COD board is still deliberating

Campos told the Desert Sun on Friday that the college board is reviewing the waiver request but has taken no action on it.

“Overall, no action has been taken on this one way or another,” he said. “It’s still to be considered, it’s not a done deal. There might be some updates, I can’t speak for the college itself, but right now they’re thinking about it. ”

Campos declined to provide further details on why the college board is still deliberating on the request.

“I don’t have any details on that, honestly,” he said. “I think what happens, right, is that there is information going around sometimes that the college has done this or not done that, but I could just say that ‘they are still considering the waiver. ”

Campos also said the reason COD has to grant a waiver is because the city is seeking representation from Ballinger on the COD issue. However, COD is not seeking Campos to represent it on the matter. Instead, the school uses another law firm to represent it in real estate transactions and related issues, including campus-related transactions with Palm Springs.

Campos said his role and Best, Best & Krieger were to attend board meetings and provide a “general counsel” for the college. For example, Best, Best & Krieger is currently assisting the college in its redistribution process.

“If we were to advise COD on an issue like, say, Palm Springs-related real estate, we would also need a conflict waiver for that purpose,” he said. “But because there is another law firm advising the college, that’s why we are not involved. We are not advising on the COD side.”

Campos said that Best, Best & Krieger requested the COD conflict waiver for Ballinger to represent the city even though Campos would not represent COD on the issue “because we are conservative and want to make sure there is no problems with customers “.

“We always make sure we’re on top of all kinds of rules and making sure it’s full disclosure and following the proper process to do it,” he said. “And that’s where the waiver comes in.”

He later added that obtaining such waivers is standard practice for Best, Best & Krieger, who often have attorneys involved in opposing sides of litigation.

The designs for the College of the Desert's Palm Springs campus were unveiled during Modernism Week 2020.

“I think right now that’s what everyone is watching [the College of the Desert issue] but it’s something that we always know we have clients and if there may be potential conflicts we have to get conflict waivers or opt out, that’s how it works, ”he said. he declares.

Campos said he presented COD with the waiver of the dispute, but could not – and would not – provide legal advice to college leaders on whether to sign it.

“We would present it and say this is what it is, this is what it means and if you want to consult someone else, you can,” he said.

Campos also said his company would accept a signed conflict waiver if COD provides one. He also added that without the waiver, he would not offer any legal advice to COD on matters involving the City of Palm Springs, including campus issues.

Ballinger told the Desert Sun on Thursday that the city has yet to receive the waiver.

“I understand from my conversations with my partner, Mr. Carlos Campos, that they are having internal discussions at COD as to whether and to what extent they could grant a waiver,” he told the Desert Sun. “One of them may be available, I don’t know, but to date I haven’t received this waiver from them. “

Palm Springs has 2 main problems related to COD

Ballinger also said that when it comes to a possible dispute with COD, two issues arise. The first is the planned COD campus on the former Palm Springs Mall site. COD bought the mall site in 2018, but ground has not been broken on the project.

Earlier this week, Garcia told the Desert Sun that work cannot begin until a feasibility study is completed, a process she said would likely take until June. Garcia said the study should have been completed before the land was purchased. However, Garcia told the city on Thursday evening that she learned that a needs assessment, which is an important part of that feasibility study, had been completed. She said in light of this, she was withdrawing a proposal from COD’s board meeting on Friday to approve a $ 49,000 contract to conduct such a study.

The second potential issue is with a 119.3-acre property north of the Desert Highland Gateway Estates neighborhood that the city donated to the College of the Desert in 2010. COD had originally planned to build a Palm Springs campus on this site prior to moving forward. buy the more centrally located mall site. .

A developer is buying the site from COD and looking to build houses there. However, at the time the city transferred the plot to COD, the city put a condition on the site that it must be used for educational purposes.

“The college can grant a waiver for the north site issue, but not the larger West Valley campus issue,” Ballinger said. “Or they could give a waiver for all negotiations. I don’t know, they’re talking internally at this point.”

Ballinger noted that an attorney for Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley recently submitted a public documents request for information and documents regarding COD planning for the Palm Springs campus.

The city’s agreement with this company is that the city pays for services on time and could terminate that agreement if COD allowed Ballinger to represent it.

Paul Albani-Burgio covers breaking news and the city of Palm Springs. Follow him on Twitter at @albaniburgiop and by email at [email protected]

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