Citizen Harry analyzes candidates for Edmonds City Attorney

By Harry Gatjens

The Edmonds City Council decided last week to reduce the number of candidates applying to be Edmonds’ City Attorney from four finalists to two. There was extended discussion and the Council even had to take a break to hash out some of the issues. Finally they came back and advanced the city’s current attorney, Ogden Murphy Wallace, and newcomer Lighthouse Law Group. A copy of their presentations to the City are here.

Ogden Murphy Wallace

Lighthouse Law Group

Ogden Murphy Wallace has been in business for over 100 years and their lead attorney for the city, Scott Snyder, has been Edmonds’ City Attorney for 27 years. Lighthouse Law Group was formed as a business four months ago, although most of the members have at least a decade of experience and Edmonds would be their first major client.

Two other firms were not moved forward although there was no real discussion as to why. They were Gary McLean and Weed Graafstra and Benson.

What follows is a brief analysis of the relative merits of the two remaining firms. I won’t cover the two that were eliminated unless the council decides Tuesday night to bring them back into the discussion.

Ogden Murphy Wallace.

Scott Snyder has been the City’s attorney for the past 27 years and has been with the firm for more years prior to that. Ogden Murphy Wallace serves as City Attorney for more cities than any other firm in the state. Snyder serves as the lead and has a backup who assists him when needed. Ogden Murphy Wallace lists six additional members who specialize in various fields that help on an as-needed basis for City issues. They also have a large number of other employees in various capacities that assist from time to time.

Their work for other cities can help them do things more efficiently; for example, they may have written an ordinance for the City of Issaquah that can serve as a template for an Edmonds ordinance on a similar subject.

Also, Snyder’s long-term connection with the City makes him almost a “library of Edmonds past,” when issues come up.

The firm is very professional and for the most part has done a good job for the City. It does have its detractors, however. Several citizens cite examples where either work wasn’t completed in a timely manner or code wasn’t written properly and resulted in hardships on particular citizens.

There is also a cost for all of the expertise and professional background. Ogden Murphy Wallace quoted the highest pricing of any of the candidates: a monthly retainer of $37,000 for general city work and then additional billing for litigation. Total billings for 2010 were over $500,000.

Lighthouse Law Group

Imagine Boston Legal, but without the old guard of Denny Crane. Lighthouse is composed a hip young group of lawyers who have come together to provide legal services to municipalities from a new perspective. Rather than providing a single lead attorney, Lighthouse has assembled a group of seven members who would work as a team for the City. So rather than filter all the information through a single lead attorney, Edmonds can go directly to a specialist at Lighthouse, making for more efficient communication.

The team consists of lead  Jeffrey Taraday, who would be the main contact at City Council meetings and six other lawyers, all somewhat equal with differing specialties. For example if you had a growth management issue you would contact Susan Drummond directly. For a human resources issue, your contact would be Rosa Fruehling-Watson. Lighthouse maintains that this arrangement allows for substantial cost reduction for the city as the efficiencies of the communications process require less time duplicated.

While all the teams members have nearly a decade of experience as lawyers, the firm was only assembled in October of 2010. Taraday, in fact, worked for Ogden Murphy Wallace back in the 1990s. However, the firm has no other municipal clients, at least where they serve as City Attorney. Several of them have helped in this function at previous employers but as Lighthouse Law Group, Edmonds would be their first client.

One issue brought up during the interview process was what would the firm look like six months or a year from now. Several members of the firm still have full time jobs with other firms. How will they then support the City of Edmonds when time conflicts arise?

There is an advantage to the city being Lighthouse Group’s first client, as it is certain they will give it their best effort so they can build their reputation.

The final factor Lighthouse has to its advantage is cost. They quoted an all-inclusive price of $32,000 a month. When queried, they confirmed that this was a complete package price, with no additional charges for anything. The City would know precisely its legal budget obligation for the year. This is about 25 percent less than the city has spent over each of the past two years.

So who do you pick?

Please think about the issues, read the proposal, review the interviews that were on the city’s TV channel and let your councilmembers know what you think. We’ve also created a poll where you can share your views.

I am going to depart from my normal practice a bit here and give you Citizen Harry’s thoughts.

It was a good idea to review the City Attorney position and see what else is out there. I value the benefits of the longevity of having Ogden Murphy Wallace serve as our attorney. However, I also believe that it make sense to make a change every once in a while, if for no other reason than to gain a fresh perspective on the City’s legal matters. Further, there does seem to be a substantial cost savings to be obtained by making a change.

All that being said, I do not think that the City can afford to take a chance on a startup with no other clients and no record of longevity as a firm. While the group may seem perfectly complimentary to each other today, who knows what issues might come in three months, six months or even two years down the road. I worry that not all members of the firm are not giving up their other full-time employment to serve as a member of the team. This is particularly worrisome in the area of human resources,  where many questions come up regularly. I think this is a great group of people, but I think it would be irresponsible for Edmonds to put its legal future in the hands of a firm that is less than six months old.

Edmonds resident “Citizen Harry” Gatjens provides regular reports to My Edmonds Newson the workings of the Edmonds city government, including the 2010 Citizens Levy Committee and the Citizens Technology Advisory Committee. Gatjens, an accountant, also offers insight into the workings of the city budget.

  1. While not agreeing with me, a long time respected friend sent me his analysis directly. He is not a resident of Edmonds but I find his analysis thoughful enough that I should share it.

    Very interesting analysis. If I may, I believe, like you, that it would be good for Edmonds to have a fresh perspective on legal issues. There are ways to lock the 7 members with some penalties if they do not perform a minimum the City Council is able to determine, just by looking at past years. If all seven members are of the right caliber of course. Undoubtedly they have to perform at their best to establish their practice reputation, as you wrote.

    Having a law firm that has been for 27 years serving the city is a far too comfortable situation. I doubt that firm has been alert to all potential problems, despite its expertise spread around the State among other countless municipalities.

    A city like Edmonds, it seems, needs from its law firm: clear thinking, clear presentation of all legal alternatives to council members so that there is no bias in the decision-making process, a commitment to execute flawlessly the decisions (on the legal side, of course) once they are sealed, and courage to push forward when there seems to be some minor opposition.

    It is paramount that the appointed law firm be completely independent from any work in other municipality. It gives more power to the Council. There is nothing worse than hidden conflicts of interest.

    I totally agree though that giving the key of the house to a “startup” is a risk. Who is able to actually assess the risk? Scrolling through the last 7 years of legal expenses -“ordinary” and extraordinary- helps putting a number to that risk. However, the risk is mitigated if, as I seem to have read, these 7 partners have indeed experience in working for municipalities in other law firms.

    If it was a business, and if I had to make a decision, first of all I would assert whether there is a good chemistry with the head of the firm. If so, I would contract the startup, with a minimum monthly hours of representation, a yearly cost cap as they have provided ($384k) and penalties if the team of 7 becomes a team of 6 or 5 etc. More importantly, the City needs to contract its legal partner with a clear mandate of where the city is going, like a “product roadmap” in business, if there is, as I hope, such a vision

  2. I believe that the entire city attorney selection process is tainted. Apparenrly there were 11 firms that applied; I have been unable to learn what the prcess was for reducing the number of finalists to 4, and who was involved in making that determination. Perhaps it was a very objective process, but without transparency citizens have no way of knowing.

    Additionally I feel that the 4 candidates for city attorney should remain in the running, because there has not been sufficient opportunity for citizens to provide their input at a council meeting. I base that view on the fact that this topic was discussed soley at a meeting on a second Tuesday – which is not a normal night for council meetings – and at a meeting that started at 6 pm – which is not a normal starting time. I urge any council member who voted with the majority to introduce a motion to reconsider.

  3. The majority of the Edmonds City Council knows who they want to fill the position. The public is not voting on this one!

  4. I think that survey gives a good idea who the people want I wish more people would participate , I think one of the questions I have and Ill throw it out there for anybody to answer how detailed or tuff is the law that the city attorneys are practicing , I do not know the answer to that if its simple stuff thats one thing if its real detailed thats another I would also check into how many hours a month omw is working and figure out what they are working on, those are all things that whoever is making the decision needs to know and one last thing if they do decide to go with omw i think they shouild renegotigate there contract after they do not play first base for the st louis cardinals

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