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In-house city attorney under consideration

The Sunnyside City Council last night began discussions regarding whether it should re-consider hiring an in-house city attorney.

Several council members, including Don Vlieger and Mike Farmer, are upset with the city's legal costs associated with services provided by Menke Jackson Beyer Ehlis & Harper, LLP. The firm has been providing legal counsel to the city since the resignation of Mark Kunkler more than two years ago.

Since that date, the firm has billed the city for services associated with six lawsuits. There have also been union negotiations and a number of property matters that have been under consideration, as well as the payroll and accounting matter in which the city was found to have penalties with the IRS.

Attorney Scott Beyer was present for the discussion, stating he sees ways in which the city could save money in legal fees.

He said the city has settled several matters, already saving money. Contract negotiations could be handled in a more standard format, but have been settled recently.

Beyer suggested those seeking advice from his firm could do some legwork, defining their concerns more precisely and his firm can also better evaluate questions as to the benefit of the city.

"As those (pending matters) move behind us, the legal costs should be on the decline," said Beyer.

He said a flat fee for union negotiations would benefit the city, as well.

Union and labor matters have cost the city of Sunnyside more than $155,000 over the past two years.

City Manager Mark Gervasi said he is pleased with the legal services of Beyer's firm. He said, "My thinking is if we hire an in-house attorney we would still contract with (Beyer's) firm for matters outside the expertise of the city attorney."

Beyer said that is a common practice of many cities.

"We are a full legal team and we're not 8 (a.m.) to 5 (p.m.) attorneys," said Beyer.

He said the salary data of other in-house attorneys provided last night to the council was not entirely accurate. He said he knows that because there were 18 cities his firm serves listed among those named.

"I know my firm's contract is different," said Beyer, stating the attorneys fees listed did not match those he knows of.

Mayor Jim Restucci said he would like to compare "apples to apples," seeing what all legal costs were for the last five years of Kunkler's tenure. He wants to know how much the city paid Kunkler, as well as any outside legal firms.

Councilwoman Theresa Hancock said the pending cases Beyer's firm handled must also be considered when discussing what the city has paid for legal services since June 2009.

She said the firm had to become familiar with the cases, nearly starting from the beginning to make sound legal decisions regarding the matters before them.

Hancock said the city would face a similar situation if it decided to choose to change the current relationship with Beyer's firm.

She also said there is an advantage to having legal counsel that is not in-house. She said a city attorney may feel as if he or she must please everyone to retain the job.

"We have other clients," said Beyer, stating he is not out of a job if the city of Sunnyside doesn't retain his services. He said his firm has the ability to tell an individual within the city a matter is not worth pursuing without fearing repercussions.

"What we are looking to do is become more efficient and narrow the inquiries to those that are truly legal in scope," said Beyer.

Vlieger said he likes the idea of having an in-house attorney because he can just approach the attorney and ask his question without the need to make a phone call.

The council decided another workshop to further explore the costs of legal services and whether or not to hire an in-house attorney is needed.

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