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Council's input convinces Vlieger to withdraw motions on hiring freeze, new contract with law firm

Two motions were put on the table last night by Sunnyside City Councilman Don Vlieger, although the items were not on the City Council agenda. Neither was approved.

Vlieger surprised some council members with the motions in the absence of Councilman Pablo Garcia and Councilwoman Theresa Hancock.

The first motion was to cancel the legal contract with the law firm of Menke Jackson Beyer Ehlis & Harper, LLC. The firm has been representing the city of Sunnyside for approximately two years after the departure of former City Attorney Mark Kunkler.

The other motion was to suspend (or freeze) hiring in the city of Sunnyside with an exception for officer number 31 at the Sunnyside Police Department.

The motions came as a surprise to Vlieger's fellow council members because the issue of legal representation is slated for discussion on the Monday, Nov. 7, workshop agenda, and personnel and salaries are set to be discussed during a special meeting scheduled for next Monday, Oct. 17.

Vlieger presented to the Sunnyside council a copy of the contract between the city of Grandview and Menke Jackson Beyer Ehlis & Harper. He questioned why Grandview is contracted to pay $3,500 monthly for services he believes are similar to those provided to the city of Sunnyside. Sunnyside is contracted to pay $12,000 each month for legal services.

Vlieger said he spoke with the Grandview city clerk, who told him the average monthly bill paid by Grandview is $3,700.

"Everything goes through her (before the attorney is called)," said Vlieger, stating, "Sunnyside needs a gatekeeper."

Citing that Grandview is approximately two-thirds the size of Sunnyside in population, he believes the current contract for legal services is too expensive when compared to the costs Grandview is paying.

"Either they are better at negotiation or better at keeping track of costs," said Vlieger.

He presented a motion that would cancel the contract between Sunnyside and the law firm in 30 days. The motion also included having city staff renegotiate that contract, using Grandview's contract with the law firm as an example from which to negotiate.

"I don't expect exactly the same contract, but I do expect a substantially smaller contract," said Vlieger.

Deputy Mayor Nick Paulakis said, "While I agree, my concern is what happens after 30 days if the contract is not resolved."

Vlieger said he was willing to amend his motion to 60 days notice, but "...I'm tired of carte blanche...how can Grandview do this?"

Mayor Jim Restucci was also concerned about the suggested motion, stating the city would be "putting the city attorney on notice without a game plan."

He pointed out the entire council, all seven members, agreed to evaluate legal costs and whether or not an in-house attorney would better benefit Sunnyside at the Nov. 7 meeting.

Because Vlieger had earlier noted that city of Grandview staff consults with the Municipal Research and Service Center, Restucci suggested Sunnyside's staff should utilize the practice to reduce legal costs.

He also said the staff could consult with the city's insurance carrier for matters that may fall within the carrier's purview.

Attorney Scott Beyer also spoke up. He said the current contract between Sunnyside and his legal firm was drawn up during a time of tumult. The city had several pending legal matters and staff changes.

Grandview, on the other hand, contracted with Menke Jackson Beyer Ehlis & Harper under much different circumstances. The city attorney had retired and there was "continuity and consistency.

"They've had a low number of claims," said Beyer.

He said Sunnyside is in a better position now. Many of the legal matters have been resolved, although some are still pending.

Beyer said he agrees with the approach of controlling costs through various measures and he said a review of the current contract would be in the best interest of the city of Sunnyside.

Restucci said he believed the timing of the motion was poor. He said Vlieger would have had his support had the motion been made at the Nov. 7 meeting.

After further discussion and reasoning, Vlieger withdrew the motion.

"You won't like the next one," he said, stating he wanted to make a motion on a hiring freeze.

Vlieger said he agreed with Hancock, who made the suggestion at the Monday, Oct. 3, workshop.

In Vlieger's motion, however, he wanted the police officer position to be excluded from the hiring freeze.

A discussion ensued and it was determined the police officer position is in the process of being filled.

Deputy Police Chief Phil Schenck said the police department is in the final stages of the process.

City Manager Mark Gervasi said another position that should be excluded from a hiring freeze is the vacancy left by former Assistant Finance Director Earlene Bassett.

The city, said Gervasi, is prepared to conduct interviews at the end of the month and the new hire would eliminate the need for outside services currently under contract.

Deputy City Manager and Chief Financial Officer Byron Olson said, "The intent would be that Mr. (Tim) Jensen would leave once the position is filled."

Vlieger said he thought Jensen would continue providing services once the position was filled. As a result of the statements made by Gervasi and Olson, he included an exclusion for the position in the motion.

Paulakis questioned the length of the proposed hiring freeze, which was never provided.

Restucci said, "Again, the timing (of the motion) is an issue."

He said discussions on personnel and salaries are slated for next Monday's special meeting, the sole purpose of the meeting is to discuss the matters and he believed a discussion regarding a hiring freeze would be better suited for that meeting.

Vlieger said he wanted to ensure the police officer position is protected, as well as any police officer positions in the future.

"Making a motion tonight makes it more difficult to cut #31," said Vlieger.

Restucci and Paulakis both gave their word that they would not vote in favor of a hiring freeze that would jeopardize the police position.

"By making the motion, you are forcing an issue intended for discussion at the Oct. 17 special meeting," said Restucci.

"I will not vote to cut officer #31...you have my commitment," he said.

Hearing that, Vlieger withdrew his motion.

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