After months of debate, the West Linn City Council arrived at a potential solution regarding how the City handles its legal services.
The fix comes in the form of three proposed charter changes that will be put to a vote in the November general election. The charter changes, which were approved to be put on the ballot by way of a 3-2 council vote during a special meeting July 24, would restore a clause that allows the council to hire any legal services deemed necessary, while also stating that any legal advice provided to the city must be overseen by City Attorney Tim Ramis. Finally, the changes would amend a noninterference clause to state that council members may provide "input" to the city manager regarding City business or the performance of an employee or department.
Dating back to before they were elected, all of the current councilors have expressed concerns about West Linn's assistant city attorney position — currently filled by Megan Thornton — which was created in 2012 to provide in-house legal services for staff on a day-to-day basis. While City Attorney Tim Ramis and the Jordan Ramis firm operate independent of City Hall and report to the City Council, the assistant city attorney is a city employee who reports to the city manager. The worry from some city councilors is that this structure could cause a conflict of interest that results in biased legal advice making its way to council or planning commission hearings.
Through a series of lengthy debates across the first half of the year, Mayor Russ Axelrod, City Council President Brenda Perry and City Councilor Bob Martin each saw their stances on the issue soften, though they remained convinced that some minor alterations to the system were necessary. City Councilors Teri Cummings and Rich Sakelik, meanwhile, have argued that West Linn's current system differs from many other cities and — more importantly — was predicated on a 2013 charter change that they felt was unclear and deceptive to voters.
In late June, the council voted 3-2 to deny Cummings and Sakelik's proposed solution, which involved rewriting the charter section on attorney services with three provisions: that the council must decide by majority vote what legal services are necessary for the City and who those attorneys should report to; that the office of the city attorney is the chief legal counsel of the City government; and that the council is in charge of hiring and removing "any and all other legal advisors as desired by the majority of the Council."
Axelrod, Martin and Perry felt that language put too much power in the hands of the City Council. They decided instead to craft language that primarily served to clarify that all legal advice — regardless of whether it comes from the assistant city attorney or any other legal representative — ultimately goes through Ramis before arriving at the council level. Ramis reports to the City Council, thus allowing councilors to feel more assured that legal advice is not being filtered through the City Manager's office.
"These three simple categories (of charter changes), I think they address the concerns expressed by the community without complicating the matter in the charter," Axelrod said.
"I think people tend to forget the issues we've had with the City Council in the past," Perry said. "If we change this too much, it's going to swing in the opposite direction. We have to keep it in the center and keep roles well-defined between what the City Manager's responsibilities are and the council's."
Cummings and Sakelik were not convinced.
"What you have here is a constitutional crisis between the democratic branch of government, the elected (officials), and whether they should have authority … or if the bureaucracy should have authority," Cummings said. "Every time you put more of the discretionary powers into the bureaucracy, you're going to lose the democratic aspect of it."
Sakelik was concerned about the prospect of Ramis reviewing all legal work done by other attorneys, saying it could lead to an unnecessary amount of work. He also felt the City had not done a proper evaluation of the structure of its legal services.
The proposed charter language nonetheless passed by a narrow vote and will now be passed on to the voters.