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In-house city attorney proposal nixed (for now)

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Attorney Rocky Jackson of Menke Jackson Beyer Ehlis & Harper LLC listens to concerns regarding the city of Sunnyside's legal fees and services.

The city of Sunnyside will continue to be represented by Menke Jackson Beyer Ehlis & Harper LLP...at least for the next six months.

Last night City Council members discussed with City Manager Mark Gervasi and Attorney Rocky Jackson the costs associated with the legal services provided by Jackson's firm, as well as what it would cost the city to hire an in-house attorney.

An in-house attorney, said Gervasi, would cost the city between $78,000 and $96,000 annually. He said the minimum benefits paid to an in-house attorney are estimated at nearly $25,000 at the lowest salary rate. All told, the city would need to pay in excess of $102,900 for an in-house attorney, not counting operational expenses.

In addition, an in-house attorney would most likely need to consult with other attorneys in areas beyond the city attorney's expertise, according to Gervasi.

He told the Sunnyside City Council he conferred with Kennewick City Attorney Lisa Beaton regarding in-house attorney salaries. She provided him with two figures for assistant city attorneys, including $63,000 for a level one assistant and $72,000 for a second level assistant.

Gervasi also told council Menke Jackson Beyer Ehlis & Harper submitted a proposal for a new fee agreement with the city of Sunnyside. The law firm's proposal dropped Sunnyside's current base rate from $12,000 per month to $9,000 monthly.

Gervasi said he recommends the city agree to the new rate and continue using the legal firm's services "...until a decision is made and/or a new in-house attorney is on board."

Sunnyside's legal fees were $302,076 in 2007 and $233,080 in 2008. At the time Mark Kunkler served as the city's in-house attorney. The following year, legal fees jumped to $505,772. That's when Menke Jackson Beyer Ehlis & Harper stepped in with Kunkler's resignation.

At the time, Sunnyside had several lawsuits pending. The law firm, having resolved some of those lawsuits, reduced the city's legal costs to nearly $330,000 in 2010 and this year the costs are projected at $255,100.

Jackson said pending litigation costs are in excess of the city's contract for basic services. With those matters being settled, the city's costs are on the decline.

City Councilwoman Theresa Hancock said, "I feel $9,000 for basic services is a good figure."

Councilman Don Vlieger said he has been disappointed with a lack of documentation regarding pending legal matters. He has asked for documentation on those matters on several occasions, but feels what has been provided to him has been insufficient.

The City Council agreed the city needs to establish protocol within city hall for any legal questions. The council members said there needs to be a "gatekeeper" and the revised agreement with Menke Jackson Beyer Ehlis & Harper outlines the city manager and deputy city manager would act in that capacity.

As proposed, staff members are to ask questions through one of the two individuals, who can refer to the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington (MRSC). After using that as a resource, facts and documentation will help determine whether the matter should further be discussed with the city attorney.

This will limit the services provided by the law firm, helping control legal costs.

"We've been moving fees downward since we came on board in 2009," said Jackson, stating he suggests council review legal fees every few months to further determine whether or not the firm is adequately meeting the council's expectations.

He said the review will help them also determine whether or not the city's legal fees are being reduced sufficiently.

Councilman Mike Farmer said he would still like to pursue seeking an in-house attorney, but Hancock said the council hired Gervasi to determine the legal needs of the city.

"Council agreed upon hiring of City Manager Mark Gervasi that it would be up to him," she said.

Vlieger argued, "It's not Mark's decision...it's ours...legal costs have been out of control and it needs to be put under control."

He said council is responsible for the budget and therefore, responsible for the legal costs.

Mayor Jim Restucci agreed the council is responsible for the city's budget, but said, "It's incumbent upon us to ask the city manager what he needs."

He said the council is responsible for meeting the needs of the city manager, and if the city manager desires an in-house attorney, that is the direction council must pursue.

Gervasi said he depends on the vast expertise of Menke Jackson Beyer Ehlis & Harper. He said the city's needs vary and the law firm has attorneys with a range of knowledge.

He said his desire is to move forward with the newly proposed agreement with the law firm and review the legal fees to further assess the city's needs.

The Sunnyside City Council agreed to a six-month test of the new agreement and directed Gervasi to move forward with the contract.

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