LINCOLN — Fremont got off cheap.
The Nebraska city of 26,000 people spent about $104,000 to defend its controversial immigration ordinance right to the doorstep of the U.S. Supreme Court. That's just a fraction of the legal fees paid by two other municipalities on legal fights similar to the one in Fremont.
The relative bargain doesn't satisfy those who argue that elected officials could have spent even less if they had accepted a Kansas attorney's offer to defend the ordinance for free.
Critics accused opponents of the ordinance in City Hall of trying to fulfill predictions it would become a financial drag on the community.
Some are now calling for the return of the $1.5 million in tax collections put in a defense fund after the U.S. Supreme Court last week allowed the ordinance to stand. The regulation requires residents to document their legal status in order to work or rent housing in the community.
“How they can continue to hold on to that is beyond me,” said Robert L. Warner, the former councilman who proposed the ordinance in 2008.
The city should maintain the defense fund until it gains more experience enforcing the only housing law of its kind in the nation, Mayor Scott Getzschman said.
The city started issuing licenses to renters a month ago, so it's too early to know what enforcement expenses will be, the mayor said. And while the constitutional fight over the ordinance is settled for now, opponents have promised lawsuits if allegations of housing discrimination surface.
“My only worry as mayor is to look out for the financial interests of the citizens of Fremont,” Getzschman said. “That's what I'm doing.”
After the ordinance was defeated at the council level, supporters got it on the ballot in 2010 and voters approved it by a comfortable majority. The housing provision of the ordinance, tied up in court, wasn't enforced until recently.
The employment provision requires employers in Fremont and those who do business with the city to use the federal E-Verify system to certify the legal status of new employees.
To enforce the employment requirement, the city added a legal secretary at an annual salary of less than $50,000. Other miscellaneous expenses have brought the employment provision expenses to about $130,000 since 2010, according to Jody Sanders, the city's finance director.
Early on, city leaders decided it was important that employees convey a consistent and appropriate message about the ordinance when addressing the public. Without a public relations professional on staff, they decided to hire an Omaha communications consultant, who was paid $55,000 over several years, the mayor said.
So Fremont has spent nearly $234,000 on all aspects of the ordinance to date, Sanders said.
Back before he was elected secretary of state in Kansas, attorney Kris Kobach wrote the Fremont ordinance.
Enforcement of the housing provisions began April 10. All new renters are required to submit information related to their legal status to Fremont police and pay $5 for a license. The status checks are then turned over to the federal government. Landlords may not rent to new tenants without a license.
Kobach confirmed that he offered to provide free legal representation to Fremont with the backing of the Immigration Reform Law Institute, a group based in Washington, D.C., that works against illegal immigration.
He said he did so for two reasons. First, he said he was confident the ordinance could be successfully defended. Second, he liked the idea of supporting the citizens who had pushed for it.
Fremont officials agreed to let Kobach defend the regulation, but they put him on an annual retainer of $10,000. The mayor, who supported the retainer, said officials wanted a formal business relationship with Kobach rather than allowing him to operate as a freelancer who didn't have to answer to the city.
In 2012, U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp struck down the rental requirement as a violation of housing safeguards and the federal government's authority to regulate immigration. A year later, in a 2-1 decision, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling.
In the meantime, Fremont voters reaffirmed the ordinance at a special election in February. Then, on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to review the case, which means the 8th Circuit decision stands.
The justices also have declined to review similar ordinances in Farmers Branch, Texas, and Hazleton, Pennsylvania. In those cities, the ordinance did not survive legal challenges decided by two different circuit courts.
Farmers Branch shelled out $6.1 million and Hazleton spent $500,000, and they could still be on the hook for millions more if opponents successfully sue to recover attorney fees, according to officials in both cities. The justices ultimately decided to review none of the ordinances.
So not only did Fremont spend significantly less, it's the only one of the three that got to keep its ordinance on the books.
Kobach said Farmers Branch took the bigger hit because its first try at the ordinance was clearly unconstitutional, and it was ordered to pay attorney fees to the plaintiffs.
A key difference: Farmers Branch requires penalties for renters and landlords who violate the ordinance, but Fremont penalizes just landlords, Kobach said.
“One word in the ordinance can be the difference between winning and losing in court,” he said.