City of Edmonds staff perspective on attorney candidates

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The following memo, dated Feb. 18, 2011, was sent to Edmonds Mayor Mike Cooper and the entire Edmonds City Council from the following city staff: Phil Williams, Public Works Director; Stephen Clifton, Comm Services/Economic Development Director; Carrie Hite, Parks and Recreation Director; Debi Humann, Human Resources Director and Al Compann, Police Chief. This memo was not shared with the public during Tuesday night’s council meeting, but it provides interesting perspectives so we are including it here:

Department Directors have been informed that City Council members may be interested in staff’s thoughts regarding whether the City Council should consider keeping the existing, or changing, law firms representing the City.  Upon review of City Council interviews of potential candidates, and review of statements of qualifications and proposals submitted by Odgen Murphy Wallace (OMW) and Lighthouse Law Group, we offer the following:

After a contractual relationship with OMW for decades, it is tempting to look closely at a new firm that is trying to not be Ogden Murphy Wallace.  Some of the issues that might be helpful for the City Council to consider are:

Ogden Murphy:

Strengths: 

Having been the City of Edmonds contract law partner for decades offers different positive qualities:  Edmonds-specific experience and historical capital, a clear corporate priority and focus on municipal law practice, no learning curve to overcome (continuity), and access to a larger, in-house legal resources base.  Professional, intelligent, capacity, intellectual and professional relationships, availability/accessibility.

Challenges:

Cost containment.  A perception by some that their extensive familiarity with Edmonds has led to a loss of focus on client service, a concern that not enough is being done to control costs, a concern that their size and corporate philosophy compromises their ability to be nimble, flexible, and creative.

Lighthouse:

Strengths:

Dynamic, intelligent, new/innovative approach, enthusiasm, and an approach to containing costs by providing an all-in-one service fee. This is attractive from a financial and budget predictability point of view and seems to be their primary sales point.  This is a strategic proposal considering the council’s recent focus on the cost of City Attorney services.

Challenges:

No Edmonds experience, very limited experience as a cohesive group of professionals working as a team due to their recent formation, and what appears to be competition for their time and attention due to other full-time commitments.  Haven’t really anticipated extent of Edmonds needs, confusing model for staff, lack of continuity.  The City of Edmonds would certainly take a risk in their learning curve.  What is plan B if the model doesn’t work?  Responses seemed tentative when asked about actual work assignments (from the interviews, they were guessing who would handle what).  There seems to be a lack of capacity on a full time basis, no primary CA (lead only), availability/accessibility.   

Additional items that may be helpful during your consideration and deliberations include the following:

  1. Cost of transition – The cost of transition is more than an issue of the City’s balance sheet: it is a combination of financial, intellectual capital, historical perspective, potential delays in completion of issues (i.e., labor negotiations), continuity for the city, etc.
  2. Due Diligence – Deciding to change the legal line-up after many years is a decision of magnitude.  There may be a reason to warrant this change, and in the decision making process, it is important for the City to articulate a compelling argument as to why.  What, specifically, is/are the reason(s) to make a change?  The City should consider deficiencies in service that have been provided by the incumbent as well as reasons why and how a new firm will resolve these deficiencies. These should be significant issues and not a list of items that could be resolved through improved communication with OMW.
  3. Transition – We are concerned with how the transition would be organized if a decision is made to change service providers.  We can see the possibility that the City’s legal services costs could actually go up rather than down for at least a year, and perhaps two in the process.
  4. Long Term Litigation – While an important issue is the cost of legal services on an annual basis, as important an issue is how much the City is paying in settlements and awards and how proactive the City is in avoiding litigation altogether.  Sometimes, paying a little more for the “right” advice can save considerable resources in the long run.
  5. Analysis – If a major change is desired by the Council at this time, it might be worth extending the OMW contract for a year in order to thoroughly analyze the pros and cons of creating an in-house attorney position.  This would seem to be an alternative with possibly less risk if a significant change is desired.
  6. Meeting – Has the City proceeded with any due diligence with OMW to see if they are willing to reshape their partnership with the City to address its concerns?  This may be a less expensive option for the City, as there is always a larger cost in transition due to hidden costs, i.e. risking a new model, learning curve, loss of continuity for ongoing issues, intellectual and historical capital, etc.?

These are our collective thoughts. This is clearly a decision for the Council to make and it is not an easy one.  Our departments will work hard to make either option work for the City.

5 COMMENTS

  1. It is obvious that some of our city’s elected officials need to look up the meaning of “transparency”, as it’s obviously the mantra but not the practice.

    At the start of the attorney selection process there were 11 applicants. That number was reduced to 4 at the Jan 4 council meeting – when only 4 members were in attendance. The public was never supplied any information on the 7 that were rejected, and we received resumes on the 4 finalists only after M.E.N. obtained them. This letter by staff not being shared with the public is just one more example of the lack of transparency.

    My view is that this letter should have been read for the public at the council meeting last night by Mayor Cooper, or a council member.

    During the Citizen Harry interview with Mr. Synder he was asked how his time is divided between staff and council members. He replied that work with staff took up 3 to 4 times as much of his time as work with council members. Shouldn’t the input of staff been given a much higher weighting than it obviously was given in the decision??

  2. Correction. I made a typo above. There were 5 council members in attendace at the Jan 4 meeting when the 4 finalists were selected.

  3. Ron–

    As you know, I asked in open session on two instances for staff feedback. There was some hesitation to provide that voiced at the time. However, this letter was very helpful for me in my decision making.

    The most important line was the closing – that staff would make it work, regardless of who we chose. I appreciated that professionalism and commented accordingly via email to staff.

    But in any case, the final decision rests with Council, as you know. Staff gave balanced, thoughtful feedback, which I for one weighed in my deliberation.

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