Heading into the June 26 West Linn City Council meeting, the expectation was that the council would settle a long-debated issue regarding the City's legal services.
That didn't happen, as the council voted 3-2 to deny a motion to put a City Charter change to vote in an upcoming special election. The proposed charter change, which was drafted by City Councilors Teri Cummings and Rich Sakelik with help from City Attorney Tim Ramis, suggested rewriting charter section 23A related to attorney services with three provisions: that the council must decide by majority vote what legal services are necessary for the City and who those attorneys should report to; that the office of the city attorney is the chief legal counsel of the City government; and that the council is in charge of hiring and removing "any and all other legal advisors as desired by the majority of the Council."
Dating back to before they were elected, all of the 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 from 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.
Through lengthy debates across the first half of 2017, Mayor Russ Axelrod, City Council President Brenda Perry and City Councilor Bob Martin each saw their stances on the issue soften, though they remained steadfast that some minor alterations to the system are necessary. Cummings and Sakelik, meanwhile, argued that West Linn's current system differs from many other cities and — more importantly — was predicated on a 2013 charter change that they felt was unclear and deceptive to voters.
"Why don't the citizens have a chance to right what was wronged?" Sakelik said.
In the end, it wasn't the prospect of a public vote that had three councilors hung up — it was what residents would be voting on. Specifically, Axelrod, Martin and Perry were concerned about the third proposed charter provision stating that "any and all" legal advisors would be under the purview of the council.
"I have no problem putting something to vote to the people if it is clear and technically correct," Axelrod said. "Putting something forward where we're responsible for all legal (services) is not in our purview."
"There's a very strong, bright line between the city manager and staff and running the city, and the City Council and commissions," Martin said. "There's equal need on both sides of the wall for legal services and a 100-year-old definition of what our form of government means, which says neither side should influence the other."
Cummings said the proposed charter change was not about control or influence, but rather flexibility for the council.
"We do not have a choice right now about whether we should have an assistant city attorney under the council or not — it's currently under the city manager and we don't have any say about that whatsoever," Cummings said. "We're bringing it back to the original style where we have a say, that's all."
Axelrod replied that a future council might abuse that authority over legal services.
"What could prevent a rogue council from biasing a legal matter?" he said.
"What would prevent it? The voters," Cummings said.
More than a dozen residents testified at the June 26 meeting, almost all in favor of putting the charter change to a public vote.
Leading up to the council's vote on the matter, Axelrod said he preferred an approach that would involve a title change for the assistant city attorney — likely to "staff attorney" — as well as a refined job description and clear language stating that all legal work under the purview of the council is overseen by the city attorney.
"We do that now," Axelrod said. "It could be more clearly stated."
Moving forward, the council will continue to work toward language it can agree on and revisit the issue July 24.