JACKSON - A group of Ocean County residents say they can save their town hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, but town officials aren’t interested. In fact, they’re spending even more tax dollars to fight the proposal.

At issue is the amount of money Jackson Township spends on legal bills. Anytime the town council meets or needs to take care of other legal business, it pays attorneys by the hour. And those legal bills add up; in the past five years, Jackson has spent just under $3 million, an average of just under $600,000 a year.

Ray Cattonar, a Jackson resident who formed a taxpayers association, is convinced the town could cut those bills in half by hiring an in-house law department. It’s not a radical concept. Officials in nearby Howell did it and former Mayor Bob Walsh says it was a great success. “Our legal fees this year will be, with everything, about $300,000, as opposed to $650,000, $700,000 a year,” says Walsh.

But when Cattonar brought his idea to the Jackson council, it wasn’t interested. He thinks that’s because the law firm Jackson uses most often, Gilmore and Monahan, has a managing partner who is also head of the Ocean County Republican Club. So Cattonar and his group secured more than 700 signatures on a petition, enough to get his proposal placed on the November ballot. In response, Jackson Township hired another law firm to file a lawsuit seeking to block the vote.

“We’re trying to force them to save legal fees and they’re using taxpayer dollars to sue us,” Cattonar says.

Kane In Your Corner requested interviews with Jackson’s mayor or any town council member. They declined, referring all questions to Kevin Starkey, the outside attorney handling the lawsuit.

News 12 New Jersey’s Walt Kane points out the irony in the town’s response: “I asked to talk to them about high legal bills, and they paid an attorney to do it for them.”

Starkey insists the town is not opposed to hiring an in-house attorney. He says officials just don’t like this particular proposal, in part because it would require the attorney to also do work for the Board of Education upon request. “The position of the township on this is that there are fatal defects in this ordinance,” he says.

But even Starkey admits he sees the unintended humor in town officials’ decision to pay him to do an interview they could have done themselves for free, especially when the topic was whether the town spends too much money on lawyers.