Due to budget constraints, city manager plans to leave position unfilled for as long as six months

The question of how the City of West Linn approaches legal services has once again been thrust into the spotlight, as Assistant City Attorney Megan Thornton recently resigned to take a position with the same title in Beaverton.

Thornton, who was hired in 2012 for what was then a new position, will work through May 18. The assistant city attorney reports to the city manager and generally handles day-to-day legal issues at City Hall, while City Attorney Tim Ramis — who operates as a contractor from the Jordan-Ramis firm — is in charge of big picture legal matters and reports to the council.

City Manager Eileen Stein announced the news of Thornton's resignation during a City Council work session April 16, and added that she will not fill the position immediately due to budget constraints.

"We're over-budget in our legal services (this year), and that's just (because) we've had investigations, we've had litigation, we've had lots of requests for the city attorney to look at different issues the council has wanted the city attorney to look at," Stein told The Tidings. "We kind of have this fixed cost in the assistant city attorney, but we have these floating costs with the contract we have with (Ramis). So that's the one thing that wildly swings, based on how much the council wants the city attorney to look at an issue or be at a (council) meeting or be at a planning commission meeting. That's the uncontrollable cost there."

Moving forward — but for no longer than six months — Stein plans to work without an assistant city attorney and use a different system to fill in for Thornton.

"Megan and Tim and I have a conference call every Monday morning, which creates the basis by which we keep coordinated and keep coordination of all the legal issues facing the city," Stein said. "So I envision still having that Monday morning conference call, but broadening the meetings to include department directors — especially those having some kind of legal issue hanging out there. And the purpose of that call will be for department directors to say, 'Tim, where are we at on this?'

"Instead of having that communication go through Megan, as it does right now, it will just be department directors directly to Tim."

City Recorder Kathy Mollusky will keep a log of ongoing legal matters and where they stand. For Stein, the hope is that this system will preserve the efficiency of having Thornton available in-house to answer legal questions in a timely manner.

"This is the best way I can think of to try to keep that timeliness happening, while we're trying to save money at the same time and get the budget back in line," Stein said. "We're going to exceed our legal services budget this fiscal year, but inasmuch as we have a two-year budget, we're going to essentially end up borrowing from next fiscal year."

During this six-month buffer period, Stein expects the council will reopen discussions about how to handle legal services. Several councilors have long been concerned with the idea of the assistant attorney reporting to the city manager instead of the council, but a "hybrid" legal approach that attempted to solve that issue was defeated by voters in 2017. Under that system, the city manager would have continued to employ a staff attorney whose advice was to be overseen by the city attorney, who in turn reports to the council.

Before Thornton's resignation, the council adopted a 2018 goal to "assess the City's legal services with the goal of optimizing quality and costs." Among the ideas proposed during a goal-setting retreat was to simply move all legal services in-house under one attorney.

"I don't want to go longer than six months without a) filling Megan's position or b) the council making the decision to hire an in-house city attorney," Stein said.

At the April 16 work session, Stein, Ramis and the council agreed that further discussion about the future couldn't happen without a better understanding of Thornton's day-to-day workload. Stein and Ramis will work together on that, and Thornton will provide a transition memo to help with the process.

"I think voters were pretty clear that they rejected the hybrid system, so it does behoove us to have another round of discussions about attorney services," City Councilor Teri Cummings said.

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