The Lighthouse Law Group, which contracts with the City of Edmonds to provide city attorney services, presented its annual report to the Edmonds City Council Tuesday, touching on topics ranging from current and past litigation to why the law firm bills the city at a flat rate.
City Attorney Jeff Taraday is the name and face most familar to those watching city council meetings, as he attends nearly all council meetings and provides legal advice when needed. But the firm has a total of six attorneys focused on City of Edmonds business, from employment matters to public works bidding and other procurement issues, to right-of-way easements, to public records requests to small cell wireless permitting.
Beth Ford is the firm’s primary litigator, and Taraday explained she has been working on the City of Edmonds vs. Ebb Tide case. In this matter, the city is trying to secure the rights to construct a walkway in front of the Ebb Tide condominiums to fill “the missing link” in a public walkway being constructed.
During the course of the Ebb Tide case, the city has prevailed in three separate partial summary judgment motions so far, Taraday noted: In the first, the city’s easement was ruled valid; in the second, the easement height limit was established, and in the third judgment, the court ruled that the parties involved in the easement did intend to build an improved walkway.
The remaining issue to be determined at trial, set for October, is whether the easement allows an elevated walkway, which the city has a conceptual design for, Taraday said.
Taraday also went through statistics for both 2021 and the first half of 2022, noting that Lighthouse worked 3,367 hours in 2021 and 1,855 hours so far in 2022. During both time frames, engineering matters took up the most hours of the law firm’s time — at 680 hours in 2021 and 309 hours in 2022. In 2021, the police department came in second, with 454 hours, but that was mainly due to extensive work the law firm did to update the police department’s policy manual in response to recent statewide police reform legislation.
There are other legal matters that Lighthouse Law Group doesn’t get involved with because those are covered through the city’s insurance with Washington Cities Insurance Authority.
Taraday also addressed questions that have been raised about the city attorney’s role in working with the city. He noted that their client is not any one individual but the municipality, which is represented by “duly authorized constituents of the city.” Those include the mayor and city councilmembers, city department directors and designated staff.
The citizens, Taraday said, “are one step further removed” as they are “not duly authorized representatives.”
“But you hear from them and as appropriate you give us direction based upon what you are hearing from your constituents,” he added.
What’s tricky about that relationship, Taraday said, is that the rules of professional conduct for attorneys “actually prevent us from having that kind of direct interaction with the citizens.” As a result, when legal issues come up in public, “I’m not allowed to engage directly with the public to explain whatever it is that they might be wondering about.”
He went on to say that at times he wished he could offer explanations, especially when he sees questions raised “in the various local news websites.” The city council or mayor could direct the city attorney to engage in those conversations, Taraday said, adding it could benefit the public. However, such a duty would take up “a tremendous amount of our time,” he added.
Taraday then talked about the three types of city attorney contracts: Flat fee, retainer and hourly. The Lighthouse Law Group has always worked for a flat monthly fee, but that is ususual. “I think Edmonds is the only city in Washington that gets an all-inclusive flat fee from a law firm,” he said.
Lighthouse earned a flat monthly fee of $51,878 ($622,536 annually) for all of its work, including litigation. Based on the 3,367 hours Lighthouse logged for Edmonds in 2021, the firm’s attorneys have an average hourly rate of $185. That’s compared to an average hourly market rate of approximately $250 hour, which would translate into $841,750 if the firm billed hourly.
Councilmember Laura Johnson asked about the history of Lighthouse agreeing to work for a flat fee and also wondered why the firm would agree to such an arrangement.
Taraday replied that Lighthouse was formed shortly before the City of Edmonds issued a request for proposals for law firms in 2010. “We didn’t have a long track record,” Taraday explained. “We were a brand-new law firm and even though we had a great team…in order to attract a major client like Edmonds, we knew that we were going to have to think outside of the box. The flat fee was our solution.”
Since then, Lighthouse has decided to continue its arrangement because its contract with Edmonds provides stability that the small firm “otherwise would not have,” he said.
In other business, the council discussed next steps for filling its vacant Position 1 council seat. Seventeen candidates have applied for appointment to the seat, and the applications are available for review here.
The council agreed on the following interview schedule, to be conducted virtually via Zoom: Ten candidates will be interviewed from 9:55 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 27 and the remaining seven will be interviewed from 7:55 to 11:15 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 29. Each candidate will be allocated 25 minutes, with two-and-a-half minutes for opening and closing comments.
Also approved was the format: Each councilmember will have three minutes to ask the same question to each applicant; follow-up questions will be allowed if possible within the time limits. Since the interviews will be open and viewable over Zoom, in fairness to the first applicant to interview, the councilmembers’ questions will be included in the agenda memo for the special meeting.
As for the appointment process itself, now set for the Tuesday, Sept. 6 council meeting, each councilmember can nominate a candidate from the list of applicants. Councilmembers are given the nomination and ballot forms and the city clerk collects each round and tabulates them. The first nominee to get four councilmembers’ votes is the winner.
The council was going to consider updates to city code governing the city attorney Tuesday night, but agreed to delay that after it was discovered that red-lined changes weren’t showing up in the document before them.
Finally, the council agreed to put on a future consent agenda a proposal to reduce the size of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission from 12 members to seven. The commission has had difficulty in recent years generating a quorum to hold its meetings, and the smaller size is more aligned with the size of other city commissions, city staff said.
— By Teresa Wippel