City transitions to outside legal counsel
The city of Newberg has officially transitioned from in-house to outside counsel for legal services.
The move came Monday when the Newberg City Council passed a resolution awarding a three-year services contract to Miller Nash Graham & Dunn (Miller Nash), one of Portland's largest law firms with 153 attorneys on staff. The resolution further named Miller Nash attorney James Walker as the city's chief legal officer, a move that is required under the city's charter.
The city began the search for new legal counsel in early November when it issued a request for proposals (RFPs), which were received by month's end, then designated a hiring committee consisting of Mayor Rick Rogers and councilors Stephanie Findley and Denise Bacon. The city received three RFPs from law firms and the committee interviewed representatives from those firms in early December. Miller Nash was selected on Dec. 7.
"All of these firms have the ability to do what we need them to do, but I think we are really setting before you the firm that felt like a really good fit in terms of our council goals, cooperation and working with our staff, and just overall, they felt like a really great fit for Newberg," Findley said.
Walker's "practice is focused on advising public entities on real estate, construction, public contracting and governance and procurement matters," an executive summary in the Dec. 21 council packet noted.
The summary went on to explain that Miller Nash can provide the city with counsel by a half-dozen additional attorneys who specialize in laws pertaining to municipal governments, labor relations, employment matters, land use, public records and public meetings.
"One of the reasons that the city of Newberg chose to seek legal support through a law firm was the increasing complexity of legal matters before Newberg," the executive summary said. "The in-house city attorney was frequently in a position to seek the support of outside counsel to meet city project or general business needs."
City Attorney Truman Stone departed the position in December after seven years at the helm of the city's legal department.
"After discussions with the Newberg Mayor and Council President regarding the legal needs of the city, the city attorney … has agreed to step aside to allow the city to engage an outside law firm to provide a higher level of legal service to the city than can be provided by a single in-house, general counsel," a November release from the city said. HYPERLINK "https://pamplinmedia.com/images/artimg/00003689149025-0721.jpg"
How much is this going to cost?
Although the city has agreed to pay Miller Nash its standard hourly rate for its services, it couldn't reveal at the Dec. 21 meeting just exactly what the rate is because the firm considers them "trade secrets" and cited state statutes backing up their claim.
"But I do not believe there's any reason we could not say what the total budgeted amount we believe to be for legal services," he said, adding that in the past, the city was paying for both an in-house attorney and, often times, outside counsel for particular legal matters.
City Manager Dan Weinheimer reported that over the past five years the city has budgeted an average of $525,000 for legal services.
"Certainly, that would be a goal, a threshold, to try to stay under, but I think that the key is also not just financial in a sense of trying to limit our costs … I think the intent was to improve the breadth of the representation and to have folks who have various expertise, who are all part of one organization," Weinheimer said. "This day and age as we get more and more complicated in the matters before us, especially with urban renewal and other land use matters, I think it becomes very challenging for one individual to have the knowledge to really represent on all those various pieces and do it in an expeditious and high-quality way.
"The hope is you've got experts on labor and land use and all kinds of the typical expertise of a firm that is well established in supporting municipal clients, that we might see some improvement in terms of production of having multiple people serving the city's needs."
Bacon welcomed the change and opined that it would make for a more efficient budget.
"It is my opinion that we will get a more transparent number in our budget every year than we've ever had before," she said. "Legal services was kind of spread throughout all the different departments and we had no idea, we had no idea how much was being spent until we asked. So to me, this really will show us a true, transparent number every single year."
Findley said she found during the interviews with law firms an ability to "tease out" where the legal services money is being spent, by department, and who is spending the most money in city government.
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