A tiny suburban Sacramento water district paid its general counsel $415,000 last year, leading some board members to question his bills.
Payments to Ravi Mehta amount to 28 percent of the Rio Linda/Elverta Community Water District's annual budget of $1.5 million.
That's not a small amount in a district where auditors have repeatedly questioned its future financial viability. The district had to raise rates 37 percent last year to make long-overdue capital improvements.
Mehta said his costs are simply a function of the legal actions facing the district. He provided legal work on lawsuits filed by three former employees, as well as other regulatory and labor matters last year.
"The district needs to manage risk better," he said.
Mehta was paid $69,000 last year for filling in as a general manager at the district, and $347,000 for his legal work, records show.
Of his legal bills, more than half are attributed "general legal services" and the rest are attributed to various cases.
Some officials in Rio Linda are ready to cut ties with him.
"He has no accountability," said Frank Caron, a director on the district's board. "He just does things on his own and bills the district."
The district's board has little control over Mehta because of his contract, according to Caron and Director Gerald Trautman.
If directors decide to fire Mehta, they would have to pay him the same amount he made in the last year as severance, according to the contract, which expires June 30, 2014. The contract was approved in 2010 by a previous board.
Caron and Trautman say Mehta repeatedly bills the district for 15 minutes every time he gets a phone call or an email about a district matter. They also question the amount of work he's done on two lawsuits filed by former employees in which the district's insurer has provided legal representation.
Trautman said he wants to have Mehta's contract reviewed by an expert to see if it is legal. On Monday, the board will also consider measures intended to rein in Mehta's costs.
One of the measures would change district policy so Mehta would review less material, while the other would change his billing procedures.
Mehta defends his charges, and says he doesn't bill the district for all the calls and other work he does on its behalf.
He also said he's been required to do a lot of work on the cases handled by the district's insurer.
He said he has always acted at the request of the majority of the board.
Director Vivien Spicer-Johnson agrees, and defends Mehta's work. "It's the employees and the former employees who are costing the district," she said.
Spicer-Johnson was a member of a previous board that hired Mehta, a decision that raised some eyebrows.
A former head of the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, Mehta has previously had his ethics questioned. In 2001, after leaving the commission, Mehta agreed to pay the FPPC a $23,000 fine for, among other things, misusing campaign funds to refurbish his Porsche.
The following year, then-Gov. Gray Davis' computer adviser admitted he took a $25,000 campaign donation from Mehta then a lobbyist for Oracle Corp just days after the state signed a $95 million no-bid contract with the company. The contract was canceled.
Today, Mehta lists the Oracle contract as one of his success stories on the website for his lobbying firm, Capitol Advocates.
In addition to his work for the water district, Mehta served as a lobbyist last year for three smaller cities in the Bay Area and one small city in Southern California, for his work questioning the state's high-speed rail project.
Those cities, which are fighting the proposal, paid his firm $226,000 last year, records show.