LA CROSSE, Wis. -

Top city leaders are defending significant spending on outside legal help.

The city of La Crosse has spent nearly $1.3 million on private attorneys over the past four years.

"It didn't surprise me. I'd prefer if we didn't have to spend that kind of money on it, but there have been a number of really messy cases that have needed to be cleaned up," said City Council president Audrey Kader.

She said big, messy cases -- like those involving the city's recent sign ordinance -- require attorneys with a specific skill set.

"Our attorneys are generalists. And when we have very specific and big cases, we need to go outside to get expert attorneys,” said Kader. “It's kind of like the medical profession. They specialize in their own areas."

"If we need to hire on outside counsel in order to save the city on a potentially very costly litigation, we will hire on outside help," said Mayor Matt Harter.

Plus, Kader said the $1.3 million figure doesn't reflect the complete picture.

If the city wins a case, paying the outside attorneys' legal fees often becomes the responsibility of the party who lost that case. If that losing party hasn't finished paying off those legal fees yet, they would still appear as a charge to the city.

"By and large, we've done very well. We've had a couple of major cases where we have won," said Kader.

There's also the issue of staffing in the City Attorney’s Office. For reasons the city refuses to identify, Assistant City Attorney Pete Kisken has been on paid administrative leave since May.

He's being paid more than $6,500 a month to stay home.

"Well, we are handling all the situations with the highest level of priority that we can. And we are making sure that we do due diligence in any areas where there is any cause for looking into any situation. So we are looking out for the best interests of the city," said Harter.

The 2013 budget for the five full-time positions and one part-time position in the City Attorney’s Office is nearly $500,000. That includes Kisken’s position.