City best served by in-house legal resources
Last week the West Linn City Council voted to continue the least efficient and most costly system for West Linn's attorney services.
Many surrounding cities like Lake Oswego, Milwaukie, Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood have chosen in-house, but we will continue to contract out.
Also, as we struggle to keep our city budget balanced, why are there no plans to seek a competitive bid for this contract?
After hours of discussion regarding legal services, I wonder if the right questions are being asked.
Until last year's resignation of staff attorney Megan Thornton, we had a hybrid system, which worked efficiently. The City contracted with the firm of Jordan Ramis for all council related services and Tim Ramis, as the assigned attorney, reported to the council in house.
Thornton reported to the City Manager and provided legal resources for staff. In addition, she also prepared many of the materials that went to Ramis for final review and approval.
This position was not filled after her resignation because of budgetary considerations, and from then on, all legal work was completed by our contract attorney.
The question raised last year, while I was still on council, was whether this was the most efficient and least expensive option for the city. Our motivation was to have a confidential discussion to avoid potentially harming the reputation of the firm of Jordan Ramis.
Unfortunately, we ran into ethics issues and the question remained unanswered. And to make matters worse, Councilor Cummings is on a mission to get rid of the staff attorney position, regardless of the cost to the city.
Her uncompromising belief that any in-house attorney would be adversely influenced by the City Manager complicates the issue.
So the question remains, what are the deciding factors for in-house versus contract attorney services, as both options comply with the City Charter?
Jordan Ramis has served the city well for many years and Tim Ramis, their representative, has extensive land-use experience.
However the downsides are costs and efficiency. Their hourly charges are anticipated to increase by about 30% in the near future. Staff access to attorney services is limited by the reliance on email and phone calls. This can cause delays and an inefficient use of staff time.
The Jordan Ramis firm also represents others, which has resulted in conflicts of interest. One example of this was the Lake Oswego/Tigard (LOT) water treatment plant development, as the firm also represented Tigard at that time.
An in-house attorney would be salaried, and so costs would remain the same regardless of how many or how long the council meetings were. The attorney would only serve West Linn and so the focus would be on the city's interests without conflicts arising.
Staff would have direct access to the attorney for legal issues, thereby saving time and increasing their efficiency. The attorney would be expected to be fully prepared with a legal evaluation of any potential issues related to agenda items.
With regard to Councilor Cummings' arguments, both the City Manager and the City Attorney would report directly to the City Council, making it the council's responsibility to ensure that both are following direction and working only for the interests of West Linn. To me this seems like the best option.
Brenda Perry is a former West Linn city councilor.
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