We’re Ready for a Full-Time City Attorney

November 1, 2014 23:17 by Ryan

Anacortes is the only city in Skagit County without a full-time employee city attorney. Each of our neighboring cities (including Bellingham, Burlington, Mount Vernon, Oak Harbor, and Sedro-Woolley) has a full-time employee serving as their city attorney. Bellingham and Oak Harbor have multiple employees in that role, and Sedro-Woolley has a combined city supervisor/city attorney position. Skagit County, likewise, has more than five FTE civil attorneys, of which I am one.

Mayor Gere has added a full-time employee city attorney to the 2015 preliminary budget. I strongly support the addition of a full-time city attorney, but not all the other councilmembers are convinced. Here’s why it’s important:

We’d save money. The mayor’s 2015 budget proposal includes $120,000 salary plus benefits for a full-time city attorney. I think that we can probably hire cheaper than that—the City of Burlington’s 2013 salary schedule for City Attorney ranged from $95,000 to $106,000/year—but it’s a deal at almost twice the price.

Just because we don’t have an employee city attorney doesn’t mean we don’t spend a lot of money on legal services. In 2013, we spent $231,731 on outside counsel, not counting the prosecuting attorney. Almost $70,000 of that went to our primary contractor, Brad Furlong, but the remaining $162,000 went to Seattle law firms (some of which bill at $500/hour).

The table below lists our outside counsel expenses over the last four years:

 2011201220132014 (Q1-3)2014 (est)
Furlong/Butler  $41,172  $57,617 $69,176 $52,905 $70,540
Stoel Rives $39,331 $39,415 $52,553
Foster Pepper  $83,689  $110,504 $93,186 $24,447 $32,596
Ogden Murphy $3,402 $1,035 $1,380
Summit Law  $85  $1,798 $560 $3,313 $4,417
Susan Drummond  $4,468  $5,120 $24,063 - -
Total  $131,425  $177,051 $231,731 $121,115 $161,487

If we hire a full-time employee city attorney at $120k plus benefits, we may be able to eliminate hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside counsel expenses. (For comparison, the City of Mount Vernon budgets just $20,000 for outside legal services.) And when we have a full-time city attorney, we’ll have someone in the office for 40+ hours per week—much more dedicated time than we currently get, and much better value for the money. Over time, the city attorney might also consolidate some work with the city prosecutor (another $66,000 contract), like Oak Harbor does.

An inherent problem with outside counsel is that contract attorneys don’t have incentives to minimize time or cost—in fact, their incentives are to maximize complexity and billable hours. Remember the Tethys contract? It cost Anacortes $48k to have outside counsel draft that ill-fated document. An in-house city attorney without the need to generate billable hours might have started with a different approach—perhaps asking “let’s first consider if this is a good idea.” Remember our proposed Anacortes Municipal Code Title 19 to consolidate our land use procedures in a new title? We spent $13k for review of that document, but it’s still not ready for adoption. It’s much easier to set expectations for and review performance of an in-house attorney over a one-time contractor.

We’d protect the City from liability and improve governance. Having a city attorney is critical to risk management. One problem I’ve flagged many times before is that contracts are not regularly submitted to our city attorney for review before council adoption. The City needs standardized form agreements and new procedures to ensure that we have proper review, defined scopes of work, indemnification provisions, and proof of insurance before entering into agreements. And a fulltime employee city attorney could keep abreast of looming issues of substantial risk to the City—like the requirement to provide adequate defense for the indigent—that have never been identified for our City Council’s review.

We’d get better advice. A separate, but unavoidable problem with having a contract attorney that bills by the hour is that non-attorney staff make decisions about whether to call the attorney for advice based on how much they think the attorney will charge. An employee attorney that doesn’t bill by the hour can be expected to provide more accurate assessments of the need to investigate a legal problem. Additionally, City staff frequently rely on advice from WA Cities Insurance Authority or Municipal Research and Services Center, which are useful resources, but are not substitutes for advice from an attorney that is familiar with the City’s unique circumstances.

We’d get more done. The state and federal laws that govern municipalities are many and complex. Staff need assistance drafting proper ordinances and resolutions. The Planning Department needs a city attorney to assist in code enforcement matters, in drafting our new development code, and in answering complex permitting questions. The Parks Department regularly needs assistance with property sales and acquisitions. In many areas, the City would benefit from having an attorney’s assistance available all the time.

We’d keep the money local. A final problem with our current practice of spending all this money on outside counsel is that none of these attorneys live in our community. If we hired an employee city attorney, we could require that person to live here—both so that he or she would have some skin in the game, but also so that the City would be keeping those salary dollars in our local economy.

Your voice matters! If you want to tell the City Council what you think, attend the public hearing on the budget scheduled for Monday, November 3, at 7pm, at City Hall. Or email the City Council at citycouncil@cityofanacortes.org. We’ll likely adopt the budget on November 17.

Comments (1) -

Susan Rooks

November 2, 2014 16:59

Thank you, Ryan, for putting forth these well-reasoned arguments.  Anacortes would certainly benefit from a full-time attorney whose sole focus was City business.

Susan Rooks

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