Why I didn't support new attorney contract | Guest View
Last updated 12/12/2019 at 9:29am
Citizens have asked me to explain why Mike Nelson and I didn't support the new city attorney contract. I cannot and will not speak for City of Edmonds Mayor Elect-Nelson. These thoughts are my own.
This article has nothing to do with Lighthouse Law Group and the work it performs for the City of Edmonds; I have worked closely over nine years with staff from Lighthouse. Some on council will reference the most recent evaluation process for extending another three-year contract.
My concerns are about the City doing its due diligence after eight-plus years of working with a contracted employee and his firm, and a contract extension with a 4% per year escalator – a 12% increase over the life of the three-year contract.
Councilmembers Dave Teitzel and Tom Mesaros were initially charged with an evaluation plan for our contracted attorneys by the council. During that process, they volunteered to gather information regarding the costs incurred by other cities that have contracted attorneys as well as flat fee (or in-house) attorneys from other cities as comparators.
This work was not completed prior to the 5-2 vote Nov. 26 to extend the Lighthouse contract another three years.
I suggested we sign a one-year contract to enable us to gather information to determine the true costs to other cities paying internal or external attorney fees. As keepers of the taxpayers' money, I regarded this due diligence a minimum.
I contacted Association of Washington Cities in the hypothetical case that Lighthouse wasn't willing to sign a one-year contract to ensure we had legal coverage for the first few months of 2020 while we looked into other ways of getting legal services provided to the city.
The cost of bringing in temporary legal counsel if Lighthouse chose to reject a one-year contract was about the same as we currently pay Lighthouse. The council wasn't interested in this information.
I have spoken to the Edmonds City directors who offered to help the two councilmembers with their research. The two councilmembers declined help from the city staff on this project – a project normally completed by the HR Department with the assistance of the Finance Department.
Council doing the work of city staff without the know-how or experience in government agencies can be a costly mistake to our citizens.
One of the reasons councilmembers indicated for moving ahead so quickly was that the new council was coming in and this would be a challenge for them, being new members. I beg to differ with that; two of the new councilmembers are self-identified as long-term business owners and the third was on the local school board for many years, including as its president.
I spoke with a couple of the new councilmembers, and they wanted input and an opportunity to help make these long-term decisions with a law firm. This is why I gave council information regarding a one-year contract. This would have allowed the new council to catch up and make a decision with all the information needed for our future.
The other issue is that an outside law firm did not review the new Lighthouse contract. I was able to contact the Association of Washington Cities to get the names of outside law firms to review Lighthouse's proposal.
How many of you would – while in a similar contract negotiation – have the law firm write its own contract and not have it reviewed by another legal expert? It was clear that the majority of City Council members didn't believe a review was needed.
Let me give you another scenario: In my 10 years on council, we have reviewed our prosecutor and defense services every few years and, although we have approved of the services they provided, we made our decision to continue their services based on comparing their work to other companies.
This is the kind of due diligence that any government agency does to invoke trust and accountability for their citizens and their tax dollars. The majority of Edmonds City Council failed our city in this endeavor.
This contract has a "triggering effect" or penalty clause that, according to the Finance Department, could cost the city greatly. For example, if the city decided to change legal services at the end of eight months during the first year, the "median" penalty in the first year would be approximately $277,000.
My findings from other comparator cites were that for the cost of our current contract attorneys we could hire two seasoned, full time in-house municipal attorneys plus a paralegal for less than the current contract cost.
They would also be able to work unlimited hours, report directly to the council, and be able to serve our many differing legal issues, as Lighthouse currently does. I am not suggesting this is a preferred way to manage our legal costs. What I am suggesting is that these issues were never allowed to move forward for review by council – therefore due diligence was not completed.
Also, research was never provided to the public or council regarding the cost of other comparator cites that use contracted attorneys. It is clear that it is really comparing apples to oranges, as it is dependent upon the legal issues that each city is facing for the relevant year.
My view is that if Mayor-elect Nelson and the new council wish to complete code compliance, due diligence at some point regarding legal services that HR and the Finance Departments should be engaged for a nonbiased, thorough comparison for services and provide all of the information to the public and Council so all can weigh in.
I have hopes that this incident was an isolated event and that we can do better for the citizens of Edmonds in the future.
I am looking forward to new governance coming the first of the year to include open transparency, compassion for others, thoughtfulness, full representation of all areas, budgetary restraint and, most importantly, listening to the citizen input throughout the city.
Here's to a bright 2020.
Adrienne Fraley-Monillas is Edmonds City Council president.