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Newly seated city councilman calls for legal fees agreement to be renegotiated

The Sunnyside City Council last night, just two months into a new legal fee agreement, decided to renegotiate base costs with Menke Jackson Beyer Ehlis & Harper LLP.

In November the council agreed to a base fee of $9,000 per month. The council at that time said it would revisit the contract six months after.

However, newly seated Councilman Jason Raines last night said he believes the fees for basic services should be even lower, perhaps as low as $5,000.

He said he has in his possession legal billing records which he acquired through a public information request. Reviewing the documents, he said, led him to believe the city could reduce its legal costs.

Raines proposed submitting a 20-day notice that would terminate the current contract.

Councilman Nick Paulakis said, "Who's going to take care of us if we don't renew the contract?"

Raines said he doesn't believe the law firm should be handling contract negotiations with the Sunnyside Professional Employees Association, which is a bargaining unit for members of the planning department and other employees at city hall who are not served by a union. He also said he doesn't believe the firm should be handling matters associated with the Fair Labor Standards Act that involve payroll discrepancies.

The latter of the two billing matters was a subject of discussion earlier in last night's four-and-a-half hour meeting because Menke Jackson Beyer Ehlis & Harper had billed the city more than $1,100 for services related to the matter.

Deputy Mayor Don Vlieger said he feels the legal services contract should fall along the same lines as Grandview's contract with the firm.

City Manager Mark Gervasi told the council members he was taken by surprise at the suggestion of terminating the current contract with the firm. He said there are ongoing legal issues and his concern is they would not be handled properly if the council decided to use a different law firm.

Raines said he believes council has been approving billing without giving it proper consideration. As a result, he feels it is council's responsibility to be more diligent.

He said he believes the legal firm could provide services beyond the scope of the base service for approximately $1,000 per month.

Paulakis said, in response, "I know the attorney can't tell us what Grandview's legal issues are, but I'm betting they're fewer than ours."

Vlieger and Raines both indicated the legal fees are excessive.

"We've got to get this under control," said Vlieger.

Raines said, "We cannot sustain what we're doing."

Attorney Scott Beyer spoke to the council, stating his law firm is willing to work with the city to address the legal fee concerns. He said he can have a new contract prepared by February and his firm is willing to work with the city of Sunnyside.

Vlieger said, in addition to staff's use of the attorneys, council should also be more willing to review its use of the attorneys.

"We need to not be so fat, dumb and happy... we need to also change our behavior," he said.

The Sunnyside City Council agreed to further discuss the legal fees at the Monday, Feb. 13, regular council meeting.

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