When the Edmonds City Council nearly nine years ago hired Seattle-based Lighthouse Law Group to provide city attorney services, a major attraction was the cost. The firm offered a “flat rate” monthly billing — with no additional charge for litigation — that would save the city significant dollars compared to Edmonds’ long-time city attorney at the time — Ogden Murphy Wallace.
Nine years later, the council is considering whether to extend the Lighthouse contract for another year — through 2020. There has been talk — as there has been during past Lighthouse contract renewals — about hiring an in-house attorney who would be a staff employee, or perhaps looking for another attorney altogether.
During Monday night’s council meeting — held a day earlier than usual to avoid conflicts with Election Day — Lighthouse attorney Jeff Taraday made his case for why the city is still getting a very good deal. And he also outlined steps he has included in the draft contract renewal that would ensure that his law firm can recoup its discounted work if the city decides in 2020 to hire an in-house attorney or switch to a new firm.
Taraday’s remarks came as the council is completing its evaluation of Lighthouse’s performance, which included generally high ratings from councilmembers, the mayor and city staff. In addition, Councilmembers Tom Mesaros and Dave Teitzel, who are leading the evaluation effort, are also reviewing the status of city attorney hiring in 10 neighboring cities — including whether the attorneys are in-house or contracted and the associated costs for each.
“We think we are getting a good deal,” Teitzel said. “The numbers we are gathering will confirm whether or not that’s true.”
When the Lighthouse Law Group first signed a four-year contract with the City of Edmonds in 2011, it agreed to provide city attorney services for a flat rate of $32,000 per month, with no adjustments for additional work. That was in contrast to former city attorney Ogden Murphy Wallace, which charged a monthly retainer of $37,000 plus additional billing for litigation. In 2015, Lighthouse asked for a 28% fee increase — to $41,000 monthly starting in 2015, with 4% increases each year for 2016, 2017 and 2018. For its one=year contract extension through 2020, Lighthouse has proposed a flat fee of $49,883 per month.
The flat fee arrangement has been unique, Taraday said, because Lighthouse doesn’t offer it to any other municipalities it works with. In fact, Taraday said he isn’t aware of another municipal law firm that offers a flat fee arrangement that also includes litigation services — such as defending the city in court after it has been sued — at no additional charge.
When Lighthouse’s monthly flat fee is divided by the number of attorney hours work, the hourly rate comes out to $141. “That’s a pretty affordable hourly rate by any standard,” Taraday said. The flat fee is intended to be a “loyal client discount,” he added.
But now, due to what Taraday described as uncertainty about the city’s intentions regarding Lighthouse beyond 2020, he is presenting a contract that would allow Lighthouse to retroactively bill the city at the firm’s regular hourly rates under specific conditions.
“Some of the remarks that have been made this year have caused me to wonder whether the city is intending to continue with our services or not.” I want to make sure that my firm is not in the position of doing severely discounted work, only to be replaced for an in-house lawyer.”
“That’s not a risk that I’m wiling to take with the flat fee,” he continued. “We’re still committed to the flat fee as long as the city is committed to Lighthouse.”
Under the draft contract, Lighthouse would have the option to retroactively bill the city — back to January 2020 — for work done at its hourly attorney rate if the following “option triggering events” occur in 2020: 1) the city terminates its agreement with Lighthouse, 2) the city approves an in-house attorney position or 3) the city doesn’t renew its agreement with Lighthouse for 2021.
The hourly rates for Lighthouse attorneys — eight of them are available to work on the city’s legal issues — range from $295 to $221.
Councilmember Diane Buckshnis asked Taraday if he would consider it a “triggering event” under the proposed contract if the city decide to do a request for proposals (RFQ) from other law firms for rate comparison purposes. Taraday replied that such an action would not trigger the firm’s option to do hourly retroactively billing. But he also added that there are only four or five municipal law firms in Washington state, and their rates are publicly available, so such an RFQ process shouldn’t be necessary.
Buckshnis and Council President Adrienne Fraley-Monillas agreed it was important for the council to be able to do its “due diligence” by comparing costs among attorneys. Fraley-Monillas also shared a quick analysis of how much additional cost the city could incur if Lighthouse chose to exercise its option for retroactive billing — she figured a range of $23,000 to $47,000 a month depending on the hourly rate used.
“I appreciate the Lighthouse Group trying to exercise leverage against the City of Edmonds,” countered Councilmember Mike Nelson, a mayoral candidate who has been advocating a closer look at hiring an in-house city attorney. This contract, I don’t agree with it. It does box us in. It does limit what we can do or explore.”
Fraley-Monillas noted that there would be a new mayor and new city councilmembers next year and as such it might be best to leave the city attorney decision to them. But Buckshnis disagreed, stating that having new elected officials would be a good reason to keep the existing city attorney through next year.
In other business, the council heard 2020 budget presentations from the city’s department directors in a marathon session. The budget packages were delivered in rapid-fire presentations, and included funding to restore the police department’s crime prevention program cut in 2009, hire an “online analyst” to manage the city’s website and add a part-time human services director. There were also a range of proposed capital projects, from safety improvements on Highway 99, to a community garden, to the design work on the 4th Avenue Cultural Corridor. Many of these proposals will be discussed in greater deal both at the council’s next meeting Nov. 11 as well as during budget public hearings Nov. 19 and 26.
The council also discussed a housing-related amendment to the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Resolution 1420, adopted in late 2018, identified two options to consider as ways to amend the implementation action in the plan. Staff has also identified a third option, reflecting establishment of the Citizens’ Housing Commission in 2019. It notes that housing policy options would be provided by the end of 2020 for city council consideration. Councilmembers expressed a desire for option three, but to extend the date to 2021. The measure will come back for additional consideration and a public hearing at a future meeting.
— By Teresa Wippel