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Hiring a new city attorney is a major responsibility

By: Carol Feineman, Editor
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It’s easy to overlook the importance of some City Council agenda items placed on the consent agenda. I was reminded of that by the July 26 consent agenda item regarding a request for proposal for city attorney services. Until I attended that Lincoln City Council meeting, I didn’t realize hiring a city attorney was such a big deal. But Stan Nader, a Lincoln councilman; and Terrie Robinson, a Lincoln resident and labor attorney with the state of California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board, recognized the significance of hiring a new attorney for the city. “So much of what we do involves conferring with an attorney to make sure we haven’t violated somebody’s rights or statues,” Nader said. Tim Hayes, the city’s attorney of 21 years, retires in early December. City Council is responsible for hiring two staff members: the city manager and the city attorney. So the city manager’s office prepared a request for proposal for council to approve at the July 26 meeting. Nader pulled the request from the July 26 consent agenda because of the timeline, he explained this week. “It was my understanding that this matter would receive our immediate attention,” Nader said. “Having a new person on by December is not our immediate attention, in my opinion. It was determined in the early part of the year that we would go out for a request for proposal.” During the July 26 meeting’s public comment, Robinson read from, and then gave council members suggested changes and issues to consider about the request. But council unanimously voted July 26 to approve the request for proposal. Nader then asked that the document be placed on the Aug. 4 special City Council meeting agenda so changes suggested by Robinson could be discussed. Nader said adding those changes would make the request clearer in what’s expected of applicants. During the Aug. 4 special meeting, council members told staff the request for proposal could go out. The request had minor changes made that week by city staff. “The changes were minimal with the majority of changes taking place in the schedule,” the city’s purchasing manager John Lee e-mailed The News Messenger. “The schedule was moved up about six weeks so I had to make changes in dates. The council also changed the pre-bid meeting so firms can attend in person or via conference call.” Chuck Thompson emphasizes that hiring a new city attorney is big. Thompson is general counsel and executive director of the International Municipal Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C. The International Municipal Lawyers Association is a nonprofit organization formed 76 years ago to serve local government lawyers and to advance the interests of local government, according to its website. The association also helps city officials in the United States and Canada prepare for litigation and develop new local laws. “Choosing this position is one of the more important selections to make in the city,” Thompson told The News Messenger this week. “Expect him to give advice to all the different departments. You want him to review your contracts, to prevent lawsuits and in the event you’re engaged in one, if not covered by insurance, either represent the city or identity a law firm.” Last week’s News Messenger included a letter to the editor from Robinson. She stated, “A revenue measure, a municipal bankruptcy and a recall are all events that could occur in the city’s near future. Any one of them alone would challenge a seasoned city attorney but the possibility of two or more in a short amount of time calls for an experienced city attorney to provide superior legal advice to help the council avoid any legal missteps or litigation.” The International Municipal Lawyers Association executive director agreed with Robinson’s statement. “Primarily, the normal thing is to look for someone who has experience in representing cities, who has an understanding of municipal law,” Thompson said. “But municipal law covers a wide variety of topics, from land use, employment issues, issues that affect cities only as well as issues that affect public corporations.” Thompson said that California has firms “that have practice representing cities.” While that doesn’t mean other firms aren’t capable, he said, it means that a municipal law firm “could step in quickly.” What should the public do or insist upon? “Transparency in this selection is one I would recommend,” Thompson said. “For the council to have an open process; let the public know who they’re looking and why and the process and what the basics of selection would be.” Last week, city staff mailed the request for proposal for city attorney services to some firms already expressing interest and California firms specializing in municipal law, according to City Manager Jim Estep. The request was also posted on the city’s website under the bids and RFP tab, according to Lee. Hopefully, the city will hear from several candidates and City Council will choose the best qualified candidate to represent our city. “Look at their background, resume, what experience they have representing cities. What their experience has been, their reputation in the city they worked in,” Thompson advised. “It’s like any other hiring process - it’s a very difficult process if you have a lot of good candidates to choose from.”