Sunnyside City Manager Mark Gervasi last night was given the authorization to contract with Ellensburg attorney Jeff Slothower and his firm, Lathrop, Winbauer, Harrell, Slothower & Denison, L.L.P. for legal advice regarding the contamination clean-up at the Sunnyside Municipal Airport.
City of Sunnyside Attorney Scott Byer said his firm referred Slothower's firm for this purpose because Byer's firm may have a conflict of interest in the matter.
He said the city needs legal counsel to work with the Department of Ecology and an engineering firm.
Slothower, too, spoke to the city council. He detailed his experience representing various entities regarding matters similar to the clean-up efforts at the Sunnyside Airport.
He said, "My approach is in two phases."
Slothower said he will gather information from both the city and the Department of Ecology. He will speak with environmental consultants in a review of the property and determine the liability of those responsible for the contamination at the site.
"I would ID potential parties who've touched the property in the past to determine the potential liability," said Slothower, saying his goal is to eliminate the city's financial burden.
He said the informational phase should last between 60 and 90 days, depending on the Department of Ecology and the city staff's availability.
"Clean-up is the unknown," said Slothower.
He said the length of time it takes to clean up the site depends on the scope of the contamination.
There was a debate among the Sunnyside City Council members regarding whether or not legal services are necessary.
Councilman Don Vlieger questioned the need for legal counsel, stating he believes the Department of Ecology is being cooperative.
"Why not determine the clean-up cost and then approach the responsible parties without attorney involvement?" he questioned.
Slothower said an attorney can act in a protective manner toward the city's interests, preventing "mistakes that may prevent the city from recovering funds from the responsible parties."
Gervasi spoke, saying he would want to speak with Slothower before proceeding on any legal actions.
He said the city responded quickly to the Department of Ecology's notice of the contamination and he would like to have legal advice, especially where other parties are involved.
Vlieger said he was concerned about the city potentially holding those not responsible for the contamination accountable. He said he doesn't want those leasing the property in recent years to be held liable when the contamination took place prior to the current occupancy.
Slothower assured the city council those using the property after the contamination would only be notified of what is happening on the property.
The only parties that will be notified of financial obligations to the city would be those parties responsible for the contamination pre-dating the city's ownership of the Sunnyside Municipal Airport.
Councilman Mike Farmer, too, had issues with the need for attorneys.
He said, "I have seen time and again the city pays more for attorneys than it would cost to take care of the issue."
Slothower said his firm is aiming to minimize the cost to the city and he doesn't expect the legal fees to exceed $5,000.
Councilman Tom Gehlen weighed in on the discussion, stating his desire "to keep the city from coming in late and uninformed" should any litigation or other legal matters arise.
Vlieger proposed an amendment to the contract authorization. He wanted the authorization to be limited to the cost of $10,000. Any excess costs must be brought before council before the city manager can agree to them.
The council approved the amendment by a 4-2 vote, with Mayor Jim Restucci and Councilwoman Theresa Hancock opposing it.
The contract was then authorized by a unanimous decision.