Wilson: Why I voted for a new Edmonds City Attorney

By DJ Wilson
Edmonds City Council

Tuesday night, Council chose to move in a new direction with our City Attorney. This was a particularly tough vote for me, given my high esteem for our former City Attorney, Scott Snyder. 

So, let me explain some of my reasoning.

–          Qualifications: I found both firms to be highly qualified, particularly the lead City Attorney candidates. I met with both Mr. Snyder and Mr. Taraday individually, and believe them to be very high caliber legal minds. I give the edge to Mr. Snyder, who clearly has more experience in Edmonds, though Mr. Taraday served formally as the City Attorney in Woodinville and Maple Valley.

–          Cost: Mr. Snyder proposed a standard contract of a retainer plus an hourly rate for time in excess of the retainer. After working with him, he was willing to bring the base retainer down from $450,000 to $405,000, which I appreciated. Litigation costs would be hourly in addition.  Over the last few years, the total cost for these services annually appears in the $550,000-$600,000 range.

By comparison, Mr. Taraday’s firm proposed a fixed price of $384,000 all inclusive. There would be no litigation costs as extra. That is a significant cost differential, in my view.

Taken these two elements alone, I was left feeling like the choice was between the Cadillac, luxury option of Ogden Murphy Wallace, and the economic, efficient Honda option of the Lighthouse Group.

And, while many folks would like to be driving Cadillacs, doing so with the public’s tax dollars isn’t something I think is wise, particularly in these tough economic times. Moreover, the Council has no plans in place to even begin to shape a levy for public consideration, much less put one on the ballot. So, while some on the Council disagree, my view is that being frugal with our dollars – especially where we lose nothing in the way of competency and qualifications – is good public policy.

That extra $200,000 would pay for another cop, and run Yost Pool for a year. Those are real dollars that I wanted to save.

Let me fill you in on some other elements that were important in my consideration.

–          The Reidy-Thuesen matter is a very big deal, in my mind. The long story short is that almost five years ago, before I was on Council, the Council approved as “final” a Critical Areas Ordinance that wasn’t ready yet. Staff and the City Attorney had not completed the requisite SEPA analysis for final adoption by Council. But Council passed it upon staff and City Attorney advice. When that happened, there was a string of events that enraged a neighborhood, costing private citizens hundreds of thousands of dollars. And, ever since, the City of Edmonds was caught up in lawsuits and legal matters where we were squarely in the middle in a no-win legal drama. Better staff and legal work would never have allowed that matter to become as painful as it did or go as long as it did.

–          Prosperous organizations need turnover from time to time. This allows senior leadership the opportunity to present new perspectives and bring new enthusiasm to the City. We’re seeing that now with some very strong hires in our new Public Works Director and our new Parks Director. We’ve been with Ogden Murphy Wallace since 1954, and with Mr. Snyder since 1983. It was time to bring in a new set of eyes and a new commitment of energy to the City of Edmonds

At the end of the day, what we all need to remember is this: There is no one in City government who is so important that they can’t be replaced – that goes for staff, electeds and me. We are all servants, and the world doesn’t end when an election is lost or an employee let go.

Some votes are tougher than others. But each of us, in our own way as citizens or servants, whether we agree or disagree, form our opinions based on the information we have at the time, and what we think is best for the community. I think all of us on Council, regardless of our vote, did that Tuesday, and – ultimately – our City will be in a stronger place moving forward.

  1. Well said,

    Everyone is replaceable and the minute one thinks they aren’t is most assuredly the best time to make a change.

    With legal counsel it is always a very difficult (risky) decision but this one needed to be made for the reasons you stated and more.

  2. I did not follow this as closely as many in Edmonds, but I do appreciate our Edmonds City Council really looking at this closely. It would be nice if we did not have to look at economics when making such decisions, but we do not have the luxury.

  3. I appreciate the view into your decision making. Transparency, where possible, will lead to better government. Thanks for leading the way.

  4. So glad that we had a strong list of applicants for City Attorney. Good analysis by Mr. Wilson of the issues, and the “opportunity cost” of going with the higher priced attorney.

  5. I did not follow this as closely as I probably should have.

    My comment at this time is that I hope the new City attorney will not appear to be as full of himself as the soon to be former one was. Maybe jobs like this need to have some “term limits” on them.

    D.J., while I have the utmost respect for you, I find it a bit hard to comprehend what you’ve written above. On the one hand, you praise the outgoing City attorney. Then a bit later, you tell about a huge problem that appears could have been avoided if he had taken greater care: “Better staff and legal work would never have allowed that matter to become as painful as it did or go as long as it did”. It surely appears Mr. Snyder dropped the ball on that one. How many other situations are there out there like the one you cited? And how much has he REALLY cost the taxpayers?

    And you give him “the edge’ because he’s been on the job here for so long, even though his actions apparently caused an Edmonds neighborhood a ton of anguish and “hundreds of thousands of dollars” ? Say what???

    And since you’ve grouped the topic of the New Parks Director and legal issues together in this post, I have a question for you all. Was a new EIS done that addresses the Edmonds underwater park being moved to the north?

  6. The legal fees charged by OMW in 2010 were $531k; the savings based soley upon attorney costs will be less tha $150k – not more than $200k. And those savings could be very allusive. There will probaly be no savings in the first year because of the need for OMW’s assistance with the litigation that’s currently in progress. Additionally, Lighthouse’s labor negotiator is an employee of Nordstrom and lacks the extensive experience of Mr. Synder – one poor labor negotiation, and there are several separate agreements to be negotiated, and the attorney savings could be made to look like peanuts. There’s an old saying that may apply here “you get what you pay for”.

    And wouldn’t it have been reasonable to have at least tried to negotiate fees with a company that has provide satisfactory service to our city for 54 years???

  7. Ron–

    Fair points, all. And, frankly, I considered them in my deliberations. Here’s what I would say.

    First, there is some question about the accounting for the legal fees. Some folks say the number gets closer to $700k. Rather than pick a side there, I simply split the difference. Regardless, I think the savings of $150k is a relevant and material savings, in my view.

    Regarding savings from the ongoing litigation, obviously there will be a speedy transition to the new firm. Whatever the ongoing costs from OMW are, I doubt they’d be as much as $150k, when that is about the amount they charged (again, admittedly this amount can vary) annually when they handled all litigation. Either way, at the end of the day, you and I are both taking guesses as to what that will be.

    The fact that one of their members is employed full time as Counsel at Nordstrom’s is a real concern. That’s for them to manage, though, and they are clear about our expectations of them. As you know, two of their seven attorneys are specialists in labor matters.

    Regarding their labor experience, it is clearly strong. Your statement that their labor negotiators – either as individuals or collectively – are inexperienced is simply not accurate. They have deep and multi-faceted labor expertise.

    Regarding labor problems, I don’t think any problems which may arise regarding labor contracting will be due to our City Attorney. There may be areas of difficulty between the Council and the unions, but that’s between us and won’t be the fault of our City Attorney or HR Director (the other key member of the negotiating team).

    Finally, and perhaps more importantly, I agree with you that we should have negotiated with the incumbent firm to see if we could figure out a happy medium. That’s in part why I sat down with Mr. Snyder personally for over an hour in my office. I asked him directly about putting together a fixed rate package like that of the Lighthouse, which would include litigation. I was told flatly no. Overhead, as downtown Seattle law firm, was cited as the reason. Mr. Snyder did lower the base retainer to $405k from $450k, but any litigation would be an extra charge.

    At the end of the day, I agree – you often get what you pay for. And I’m willing to pay for a Honda in these days rather than a Cadillac. I have a great respect for Mr. Snyder, but I felt on balance it was time for a change.

  8. Right from the start I preferred to have a new attorney even though I had no problem with Mr. Synder, because as Craig said: to have “a new pair of eyes”. But I had a caveat, and that was that the new firm needed to be equally competent. Among the 11 applicants there likely was an equally competent firm. I watched the council interviews and I attended 1.5 hour Citizen Harry interviews with the two finalists. In my view there would be too much risk with Lighthouse. I wonder how many citizens leaving comments on this site realize the firm was formed only a few months ago in order to compete for this contract with our city.

  9. I think its very nice mr wilson shared his views, at the end of the day it comes down to money I think omw got too involved with things that are really private legal matters with citizens but the city ends up right in the middle,is that there fault I can’t answer that now I here there going to be some law suits over construction stuff from last year, I wish they would bring me in cause I love this stuff and I am good at it Im not an attorney though. Ron talks about Labor negotations Ive been around union labor negotations for 30 years in my mind there no a brain you get the best deal on insurance you can look at the inflation and cost of living increases and come up with a number now whats so hard about that . Thats the way they do it in my union and we have struck once in 74 during kingdome construction, This is a strong union state it should’nt be a problem thanks again dj it was a tough decision because people were involved but I think you made the right call, time will tell lets hope so again at the end of the day it comes down to money

  10. Again, I think that’s a fair point, Ron. And one I considered. But when I went back through at each of the other applicants – all 11 we received – there were essentially three types.

    1) Independent actors like Gary McLean. These guys, while qualified, did not have the capacity to handle our City.

    2) Large, traditional municipal law firms, like OMW. At the end of the day, all firms were qualified. But they were all very similar in basic structure, service and pricing as OMW. I didn’t feel we needed to replace OMW just to get a firm exactly like OMW. That would not have made sense to me.

    3) The Lighthouse Group. They stood out as willing to take a risk to earn our business. They are giving us a deal. The risk to us is not that they will be different – of course they will be. The risk is that we work them so much they think they have to reconsider our contract. But to that I would say a) there is very little turn over in city attorney services, so there will be few openings for them to grow their firm in the coming years, so there is no imminent threat of them being too spread out to service us. And b) so what? The risk is all on them. If they don’t provide us adequate service, we move on.

    As someone said to me today, “Look, it’s not like we’re marrying them. We got a great deal for good lawyers. If things change in 5 years, we’ll act accordingly.”

  11. Jim W–

    I think yours is also a fair point. At the end of the day, while I think highly of Mr. Snyder, there have been a number of performance related matters that gave me real concern. Not all of them were Mr. Snyder’s doing – but, like the Reidy-Thuesen matter I mention here – I would have liked to have seen a different path taken. That direction wasn’t often my call to make, of course. The City Attorney takes direction from the mayor and from a majority of the Council. So, I think Mr. Snyder was generally trying to do what he thought the position of the Council or mayor was. However, there have been times when, while Mr. Snyder may have been doing what he perceived was the best for Edmonds, I would have liked to have seen a different path.

    Sorry to be cryptic. Most of the matters are complicated and involve legal matters, so explanation on the comment thread of a blog post isn’t the best way to dig into them.

    On your EIS question, I’ll follow up with staff to ask.

  12. Ron I know your worried that the firm is new,the firm is new but the lawyers are not and i was impressed with the team, its a good mix they all went to school together and they have some older more experienced lawyers in there. Thats key with a younger group but there not that young there right in there prime. This is a good group , they will do good

  13. Nice Summary DJ. I have a few comments to make as well:
    The cost center for the attorney is at $700K (unaudited) and I asked the Mayor for a breakdown, but have not been given it. Ron, had you or Dick VH been appointed, I think this City might have taken a totally different direction in terms of getting financials in a timely, accurate and consistent manner.

    I found both of Lighthouse’s labor attorneys to be very knowledgeable and helpful. Actually, I found the entire team to be very knowledgeable and helpful. Mr. Plunkett also spoke to one of the labor attorneys. Each one of them was able to pull out examples of incidents, cases, rulings that they had worked on in previous cities and/or corporations or military. Personally for me (and I don’t want to drag this on) I learned that if an employee does not comply with an ordinance that action or non-action is a performance issue. Mr. Snyder indicated he had counseled both Mayors on this fact which began as early as May of last year. While Mr. Snyder defended his role as being an advisor and the Mayor as the administrator and quoted the RCWs, I don’t think anyone should be held above the law. Laws are written and passed and should be complied with as if not, what signal does that send to the other employees? So, to me, it appears time for a “new set of eyes” as the city spent about $25K or more (again, asked the Mayor and no answer) on an investigation that clearly should have never transpired.

    I also want to comment on the levy. Levy Committee Member Darrol Haug did an excellent presentation to the City Council. What we found during our research is the Finance Directors from both Shoreline and Redmond were leading the charge and providing the detailed numbers and support which were then backed by the Mayor and the City Council. During the 2009 levy meetings, Kathleen Junglov and Mayor Haakenson were present at each meeting to answer questions and provide specific details. Ms. Junglov and I had very detailed conversations regarding municipality accounting and the City of Edmond’s method of financial disclosure and reports. After you review Mr. Haug’s detailed PowerPoint which is now on the website, it might be time now for the administration to step up and start helping the citizens and Council understand the specific needs. I have been having conversations all along with people and in this anti-tax environment; we must clearly provide transparency and focus. As soon as Adrienne is ready, we will start having our town hall meetings again so that we can hear from the folks that don’t show up to City Hall but are concerned about their neighborhoods. I think we all need to start talking about it and getting input from the citizenry.

  14. I am grateful to DJ for being forthcoming about his reasons for voting for Lighthouse Law Group, and about his concerns about OMW. He has carefully outlined his rationale, and responded completely and respectfully to all comments. His willingness to do this takes us closer to the transparency that we are all hoping for in the governance of Edmonds. Thanks, DJ!

    I also greatly appreciate that Diane continues to pursue the goal of obtaining transparency in the budget. There have been many roadblocks put in her way. I would like to know why Mayor Cooper did not handle Lorenzo Hines’ email complaint to the Human Resources Director internally, rather than escalating it to result in legal costs, possibly in excess of $25,000.

  15. @Joan, we don’t know the amount spent on this investigation as emails regarding financial questions have generally not be answered. According to Lighthouse attorney’s and discussed with Scott Snyder, the Mayor is responsible. I do not understand how an employee can break the law month or quarter after quarter. We also continue to argue over a Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) non-sanctioned General Fund cash flow approach or Edmond’s use of a modified working capital approach which isn’t even sanctioned by GAAP, let alone GFOA. Mr. Plunkett and I as part of the Finance Committee found out exactly how the Lighthouse Group would have handed this insubordination and maybe with a new firm, both Mayors would have listened. Our attorney has advised both of us no further contact with the Finance Director and it is now left to the new Finance Committee Members Bernheim and Petso.

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