Council considers another legal services ballot measure
For the third time in six years, West Linn residents may see a special election ballot measure concerning the City Charter's language about the structure of the City's legal services.
In 2013, citizens passed a measure altering the legal services language. In 2017 some council members took issue with the charter's new language, which they thought gave city staff too much authority over the City's legal services. They drafted another measure to change the language again. This measure ultimately was turned down by voters.
Now, councilors are seeking legal advice on a third ballot measure potentially slated for the November election that would revisit the same concerns as the failed 2017 measure.
The council made the decision to seek legal advice on the measure at a May 6 special meeting to the dismay of Mayor Russ Axelrod and Councilor Jules Walters, who felt it was too soon to ask the city attorney for advice on ballot language when there are still facts, options and advice to hear and weigh.
Councilors Teri Cummings and Rich Sakelik, who approved the council to seek advice from the city attorney on a measure, along with councilor Bill Relyea, want to see section 8f of the City Charter, which was removed in 2013, restored.
"The 8f is a key part of it, whether we reenact it exactly verbally as it was taken out," Sakelik said. "If you recall, 8f says council has authority in hiring and firing of all attorneys in the City, so that was a key component that was left out that changed the legal structure of the city in 2013 and led to what we're under right now where you've been hiring attorneys for different things.
"Previous to that," he said. "The City Council was responsible for hiring all the attorneys for the City, and that's how it worked for 20-something years."
The council said the current charter is too vague where legal services are concerned. Currently the charter states that the council has authority to hire and fire a city attorney.
Sakelik and Cummings said this leaves the door open for a city manager to come in and hire other legal services for the city, such as an assistant city attorney or paralegal, which is what former City Manager Chris Jordan did in 2013. They want the charter to explicitly state that the council has ultimate authority over the city's legal services.
Axelrod and Walters are open to the idea of a measure further defining the City's legal structure; they said they don't want to rush into the decision.
According to City Manager Eileen Stein, the charter's language on legal services does not need to be amended, and a tight timetable for crafting a ballot measure could cause problems for both her and the council.
Stein noted that the council already has a full agenda for the coming months and the multistep process of generating a ballot measure would only add to the council's already-packed plate.
"This is how the agenda gets backed up and I get confused about what is the priority for what you want to do in these very precious few work sessions and regular meetings that you have," she said. "The charter already allows there to be either an in-house city attorney or a contracted attorney. I don't know how the charter language needs to be changed."
According to City Attorney Tim Ramis, the next steps for the council are to decide what they might want on the ballot and then hold a public hearing on the matter to get feedback from citizens. Once a charter amendment is made available, there will be a period when citizens may challenge the ballot before it is finalized.
Cummings would like a ballot measure to go a step further than simply reinstating 8f to the charter, which she feels was abused by Jordan when he hired an in-house assistant city attorney in 2011 who reported to him, rather than the council.
"The charter language was vague enough to let the former city manager, not this one, propose in his 2010-11 budget — he actually had the nerve to propose — that the city attorney and the paralegal would be under the city manager because he thought that the language of 8F was vague enough to allow that," Cummings said.
"We don't have that language anymore, but there was some discussion about restoring 8f to the charter in the ballot measure that came to the voters in 2017, so I don't think simply bringing back 8f would suffice. So I would like to make the voting structure as clear as possible and bring it to the voters and see if that's what they want."
The assistant city attorney hired by Jordan, Megan Thornton, left the City a year ago and her position has been kept vacant in order to save the city money.
The desire to redefine the City's legal structure has peaked again as the council grapples with what to do with the $708,000 allocated for legal services in the 2020-21 biennial budget.
During a recent budget committee meeting, the citizen members of the panel and several council members voted to move the $708,000 from a fund under the city manager's jurisdiction to a council fund.
Ramis, who is contracted with the City through a private law firm, estimates the rates for his firm will rise about 30% for the coming year. The City, so far, has spent $151,462 for Ramis' services during the 2019 fiscal year.
The council hopes further defining the legal structure will help it decide whether to hire another assistant city attorney or another legal aide.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.