Second citizen coffee includes visit with City Attorney Scott Snyder

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By Harry Gatjens

We finished up our “Coffee with Harry, City Attorney edition” Monday with a visit with Scott Snyder from Ogden Murphy Wallace. A nice group of concerned citizens showed up although not quite as many as for Friday’s session with the Lighthouse Law Group.

Snyder talked a bit about the firm’s relationship with the City. It appears that in addition to Mr. Snyder being the City Attorney for the last 27 years, the firm itself has actually been the City’s Attorney since 1957. Asked if that was perhaps too long for one firm to be kept in place, Snyder answered — similar as The Lighthouse Group did to the same question — that it isn’t so much the time as the question of the city feeling confident and comfortable with whomever they choose as their City Attorney. While Edmonds is certainly the longest-standing relationship Ogden Murphy Wallace has with a city, the firm also has relationships of more than two decades with several other cities. Snyder says it is good for the City to examine the issue every so often, but longevity alone is not a reason to make or not make a change. The City needs to go with a firm it has confidence in.

A question was asked about whether the City Attorney should have been involved in the recent discrimination suit between two councilmembers and a city employee. Snyder pointed out that as the City Attorney, he represents the City as an entity. He doesn’t represent individual employees, councilmembers or individual citizens. The City has a strong discrimination ordinance that dictates the need to bring in an outside law firm when such a dispute arises, Snyder said.

A citizen who could not be present submitted a question for Snyder to answer: Does the City Attorney have an obligation to present to the Council a settlement offer? He stated that no, this was not the case. Referring to the specific instance the questioner was asking about, he said he discussed the offer with the Mayor and staff. He advised them that the offer was contrary to a previous ruling by the courts and that bringing it forward would risk the chance of the City getting into another lawsuit over not following the court’s decision.

The same citizen submitted this question

Does a City Attorney possess the authority to intervene in a public hearing and recommend the City Council adopt a course of action that:
A. Is different from the Mayor and staff’s recommended course of action?
B. Has not been included in the public notice for the related public hearing?
C. The public has not been notified of and as a result has had no opportunity to prepare public comments related to the  recommendation of the City Attorney?

Snyder, again referring to the specific case rather than a theoretical argument, said that this question was related to the first question. In his role as City Attorney, it was his job to advise the Mayor and staff of the risk of any course of action. As to parts B and C of the question, he said that it was not included in the notice of the original public hearing as the topic changes during the meeting. However, the City Council at the time continued the action on to another meeting some two to three weeks later. This gave the public several weeks to prepare any comments they might have. No one came to the next meeting, however.

We went over this topic for about 45 minutes, but the concerned citizen wasn’t present to dispute what Snyder said. I don’t know the history of the topic and certainly wasn’t present when all this was going on, so I can’t verify the facts one way or another. Obviously, people remember the facts differently so you need make your own best guess on what actually transpired.

Snyder was asked how his firm’s long-term relationship with Edmonds and other cities benefited the city. He pointed out that his long tenure gives him vast knowledge of what has happened in the past and makes things much more efficient when trying to reconstruct previous actions. He can tell whomever inquires that yes, you decided on that before and this is what was decided.

He was asked about his firm’s delay in providing ordinances to the City,  specifically the issue with dogs being allowed along the waterfront. For those who don’t remember, this issue created quite a stir when Council President Steve Bernheim took matters into his own hands and removed signs on his own. He responded that he had prepared the ordinance the day after the meeting where it was requested. City staff then delayed pushing the ordinance forward as they wanted to examine adding some other parks to the ordinance. Bernheim contends that for several months, the ordinance sat there without council approval. Snyder admitted that perhaps he should have noticed and pushed for it to be moved along, but noted that he had written the ordinance in a timely manner. When it was ultimately approved, it had been changed to incorporate the additional parks.

Concerns were brought up about the City code, which was last written in its entirety in 1978 and has been amended many times over the intervening period. In 2004, Snyder suggested to the Council that a code rewrite was probably a shrewd thing to do. Money was appropriated to do that the next year, but the process itself has been slow and cumbersome. Political issues have brought this issue almost to a standstill. It is not the City Attorney who writes the code, but rather the staff with advice from the City Attorney when issues come up. Snyder still believes a rewrite should be a priority, but to achieve it will take someone who can push it through without getting to deeply involved with minor political issues.

It was suggested that two main issues seem to have driven the push by some on the council to review the city’s relationship with Ogden Murphy Wallace. One is a matter of cost and the other appears to be a group of citizens who feel they have been wronged by the city and that it is Ogden Murphy Wallace’s fault. Dealing with the latter issue, Snyder acknowledged that certain citizens feel this way, but that will always be the case in adversarial situations. He tries to represent the City as an entity, not as individual citizens, councilmembers or special interest groups. He thinks if you take an objective look at the facts, you will come to the same conclusion.

As for pricing, Ogden Murphy Wallace has many years of experience with the City and has a strong understanding of how much work is involved in dealing with the City’s needs. Snyder said he realizes that the firm’s pricing is higher than the competition’s. but said that it is inline with what is charged to other similar cities. He also mentioned that Ogden Murphy Wallace could offer advice to the city staff, mayor and council that would help them reduce costs.

One more issue that came up was The Lighthouse Law Group’s unique “team approach” to the City’s legal needs. While not promoting what Ogden Murphy Wallace does as such, Snyder stated that his firm has always been practicing this same approach. They have a vast array of lawyers with individual areas of practice. City staff needn’t run everything through Snyder but can go to these specialists directly.

All in all, the coffee went well. As always, Chanterelle’s employees made us feel welcome and provided both excellent service and food. It was a unique experience to have both candidates open to meeting with a small group of ordinary citizens. I think those who came felt better about both candidates. The Lighthouse Group provided some comfort with their ability to stay around and serve the City of Edmonds. Ogden Murphy Wallace relieved some concerns about past issues that most of us know about only in the abstract.

One thing that disturbed both citizen groups attending was the fact that the council had made no formal contact or inquiry of the firms since the initial interviews. Once the decision was made to reduce the candidates to two, we would have thought that the council would do a more thorough analysis as a group, rather than relying on each council member to do their own investigation.

Now the hard part: Whom do you choose? I was impressed with both firms. I think that each could adequately do the job. While The Lighthouse Group is quoting a cheaper price, don’t forget that there will be transition costs, perhaps more than the difference in pricing. Ogden Murphy Wallace is more expensive, but with these increased costs you get a lot of long-term experience with the city and more experienced players within the firm. I think either choice could probably work out in the long run but I still feel that there is less risk and a better return by staying with Ogden Murphy Wallace, even if — from an absolute dollar standpoint 00 they are more expensive. While the Lighthouse Group relieved some of my apprehension about their short-term existence, I still don’t feel that the City of Edmonds can take the risk.

Whomever the council chooses, I will support the efforts. If you have strong feelings, make sure the councilmembers know as they will be deliberating on Tuesday night.

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