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City attorney options explored

Bryon Olson, director of finance and administrative services for the city of Sunnyside, gave the Sunnyside City Council a presentation at last night's meeting on the pros and cons of hiring an in-house city attorney.

Olson noted that the city had an in-house attorney until June of 2009, when former city attorney Mark Kunkler resigned. Kunkler was supplemented by contracted outside legal counsel and served as the prosecutor for the city's municipal court.

Since June of 2009 the city has contracted with Menke Jackson Beyer Ehlis & Harper, LLC for legal work.

The city spent $442,419 for legal services in 2009, with $351,184 going to Menke Jackson. That's compared to $180,328 spent in legal fees in 2008 and $314,246 spent in 2007.

July and November of 2009 were the costliest months for Sunnyside. In July the city spent more than $50,000 in legal fees and $50,000 in November. The number has gone down significantly since Olson was hired. The city spent approximately $10,000 in legal fees in March of this year.

The bulk of the legal work performed by Menke Jackson has been on personnel issues.

Olson told the council the city needs legal services to provide counsel and guidance to the city council and city staff. He also said there is a potential need for a prosecutor in the city's municipal court.

He presented three options to the council. Hire an in-house attorney, utilize outside counsel or use a hybrid scenario where the city contracts with a legal firm and has an associate counsel assigned full time to the city.

Some advantages, Olson told the council, to hiring a city attorney would be it is similar to what the city has done in previous years. An in-house attorney is always available and may understand the city's issues better.

Some disadvantages, Olson said, were the city would still most likely require assistance from outside legal counsel and there would be a potential lack of experience in all legal areas needed by the city.

Advantages for hiring outside counsel would be having expertise for each individual area the city found itself in, from environmental issues, labor relations and contracts to public policies. The city would also only be required to pay for services, in other words, no work, no pay.

Some disadvantages, Olson said, were that the attorneys would not be in-house, but instead a phone call away. Billing rates would also be higher than an in-house attorney.

Olson recommended to council they stay with Menke Jackson for the time being and then when a new city manager is hired, a decision should be made then.

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