WL City Council evaluates future attorney services
The departure of West Linn Assistant City Attorney Megan Thornton May 18 left the City shorthanded, but it also presented an opportunity for staff and the City Council to reevaluate its legal services during a work session May 21.
When Thornton resigned in April to take a position in Beaverton, City Manager Eileen Stein opted not to immediately fill the position due to budget concerns. Her interim solution — which is planned to last no longer than six months — was to hold a weekly conference call with West Linn's contracted City Attorney Tim Ramis and department directors, with City Recorder Kathy Mollusky keeping a log of the status of ongoing legal matters.
West Linn added the assistant attorney position in 2012 under a different city manager. The assistant city attorney reports to the city manager and generally handles day-to-day legal issues at City Hall, while Ramis — who operates as a contractor from the Jordan-Ramis firm — is in charge of big picture legal matters and reports to the council.
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.
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.
That was one of the four options Stein presented to the council during the May 21 work session, and she estimated that such an in-house attorney would cost about $170,000 per year in salary and benefits.
The other options were to retain the aforementioned hybrid approach (estimated cost: $325,000 per year), continue with the current interim solution ($155,000 per year) or keep Ramis as a contracted attorney while also bringing on another representative from Jordan-Ramis to work between one and three days a week at City Hall (Stein said Ramis would have to provide a cost estimate for this option).
Early in the discussion, City Council President Brenda Perry said she felt hiring an in-house attorney was the most prudent way forward.
"(As) much as I appreciate having Mr. Ramis' services, I really feel that this is a time for us to stabilize our services and get an internal city attorney," Perry said. "So they'd serve both (purposes) — serve as staff attorney and for any other needs we have. I think this settles a lot of questions; it gives us stability and we have somebody permanent there."
Ramis said the discussion was hampered by what he viewed as faulty cost assumptions.
"As someone who has been managing legal services for about the last 35 years for local governments, this number you have — that you're going to provide the city's legal services for $170,000 a year — is far off the mark and substantially underestimates what the cost would be," Ramis said. "I think you can see that by looking at jurisdictions of similar sizes in the area."
Specifically, Ramis said that salary and benefits for an in-house attorney did not cover the entire financial picture. He estimated that West Linn currently spends between $325,000 and $350,000 annually on legal services from his firm, and said that was less costly than most surrounding cities.
"Newberg, for example, has an in-house city attorney and has a legal budget at least double (the $170,000 figure)," Ramis said.
"So why is this happening? It happens because these days, one person can't do it all. What really is the question is: If you bring in someone in-house, can you save money given the assumption that you're going to have to go outside for outside council?"
Ramis said an in-house attorney would spend much of their time on the staff-related tasks Thornton was responsible for, which would make addressing other issues difficult.
"The way I think you could save some money is to take a hard look at various tasks that are being performed in house now and assign them more appropriately," Ramis said. "Some (tasks) are appropriate for a sophisticated legal practitioner, some of them more appropriate for what would be an associate in our system, others a paralegal should do, others are administrative and could be done at a staff level and others are things that could be done by staff with some greater training."
The discussions came as Jordan-Ramis prepares to increase its rates, further complicating matters.
"I'm concerned that we're going to see a gap in service here with Megan (Thornton) suddenly gone and having to rely on Ramis' firm sort of filling it in at a rate we can handle," Mayor Russ Axelrod said.
Ultimately, the council felt that working under the interim system would give it a better idea of its needs for the future, and also asked Stein to provide more information about the legal services used by surrounding cities.
"We can establish what our needs are based on this (interim system)," City Councilor Rich Sakelik said. "I don't think we'd be suffering by continuing to do it, but it would give us some good data to make some decisions on at some point."