West Linn council split on approach to attorney services
At one point during the West Linn City Council's May 15 discussion of West Linn's legal services, when a 2013 change to the City Charter came up, City Councilor Bob Martin expressed some frustration with the continued focus on what happened four years ago.
"I do not have a working time machine," he said.
Attendees, however, may have wondered if they'd stepped through some strange time portal. Just as it was during the last discussion April 17, talks stretched deep into the night — this time prompting a reboot of City Hall's audio system after it automatically shut off at 11 p.m. And just as it was a month ago, the council was split and found itself without a clear path forward.
"We need to look at some sort of final solution and wrap this up," City Councilor Brenda Perry said. "We have so many issues to discuss as a council and I'm not sure it's valuable to, meeting after meeting, discuss this."
Dating back to before they were elected, some current councilors have expressed qualms over West Linn's assistant city attorney position — currently filled by Megan Thornton — which was created in 2012 to provide in-house legal services for staff on a day-to-day basis. While City Attorney Tim Ramis and the Jordan Ramis firm operate independent of City Hall and report to the City Council, the assistant city attorney is a city employee who reports to the city manager. The worry for some city councilors is that this structure could cause a conflict of interest that results in biased legal advice making its way to council or planning commission hearings.
At the April 17 meeting, the council decided to revisit the matter at its May 15 work session, when City Manager Eileen Stein and Ramis would present some potential City Charter amendments and a new job description for the assistant city attorney that might work to solve the problem.
In the end, Ramis proposed what he called the "general counsel" model in which all legal advice — including what comes from the assistant city attorney — would filter through the city attorney.
"Whatever the source is, you're confident that that information comes to you through the city attorney, or at least in consultation with the city attorney," Ramis said. "So it's not inconsistent advice and you can be assured it is objective advice. … I would suggest that the city manager continues to be the person who hires the assistant city attorney, and the authority to hire all other counsel will be in the City Council."
Several residents testified about Ramis' latest proposal, with three saying they were against it while two were in favor.
Ramis' solution — which would more or less keep the current structure in place, with a few changes — was satisfactory for three city councilors. But the two who have been most vocal about the issue — Teri Cummings and Rich Sakelik — said it wasn't enough.
"It's missing one major point: All legal services would not be reporting to the council," Sakelik said. "(In this proposal) we don't have purview of the staff council. This is about policy moving forward and returning to what it was supposed to be."
"It's too easy for anyone to go back to another way in no time at all, because this isn't clear," Cummings said. "The biggest job is to reestablish the reporting structure under the City Council."
Mayor Russ Axelrod said it wasn't that simple.
"That violates the charter by putting the council in charge of another employee," Axelrod said. "You as a council member don't have authority over staff other than the city manager."
Sakelik said the council could put a charter change on the ballot that gives the council authority to hire and fire all legal counsel. He argued that that would simply restore language that was struck from the charter in a 2013 ballot measure, which stated that "the Council may retain legal advisors as it deems prudent. The legal advisors shall report to and serve at the direction of the Council." At that point, he said, the council would have full control and could even maintain the status quo if it wished.
Axelrod, Martin and Perry said that would cause more charter problems and put the council in a position of hiring attorneys on municipal issues it has little knowledge of.
"Why do we need to fix something that's not broken?" Perry said.
Sakelik and Cummings remained steadfast and in the end, the council agreed to review a proposed charter change that would be drafted by Ramis.
"If you can do it quickly and find some charter language that solves, I'll look," Axelrod said. "Or we need to move on."