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Council may re-evaluate city's legal structure

Debate centers on assistant city attorney position


In a contentious West Linn budget hearing earlier this month, questions arose regarding the structure of the city’s legal services.

After hearing testimony from a number of residents, Mayor Russ Axelrod and City Councilor Brenda Perry indicated that they were uncomfortable with the city retaining both a city attorney position — currently contracted to Jordan Ramis PC — and the assistant city attorney position held by Megan Thornton.

Thornton

“I want a policy analysis around this,” Axelrod said during the June 8 hearing. “As mayor, I’m asking that we evaluate this concern.”

The bulk of the concern centers on Thornton’s assistant city attorney position, which was created by the city in 2012 to provide in-house legal services for staff on a day-to-day basis. While the Jordan Ramis firm operates independent of city hall and reports to the City Council, Thornton is a city employee who reports to City Manager Chris Jordan.

Perry and Axelrod believe that reporting directly to the city manager could cause a conflict of interest, while others, like City Council President Thomas Frank, feel that Thornton’s position is vital for the city moving forward.

“The Council approved this arrangement — before my tenure on Council — and it has worked well,” Frank said.

Evaluating service

Conversations regarding the city’s legal services date back to 2010, according to Assistant City Manager Kirsten Wyatt.

“The question was, ‘What level of service do we need from an attorney?’” Wyatt said. “Other cities nearby have in-house attorneys, and so that conversation got started. Some of it was because firms that we worked with, either officially as our city attorney firm and then even other firms we work with, they work for other cities as well.

“Chris (Jordan) wanted to raise to the Council this idea of, ‘Do you want to have an in-house attorney whose only client is the City of West Linn?’”

Discussions were heated, and though the Council ultimately chose not to make changes to the city attorney position at that time, a compromise was made to hire an assistant city attorney.

“Everything that is happening right now is absolutely consistent with the charter,” Wyatt said. “The charter says the city attorney reports to the City Council … It’s the Council’s call of how that position is structured, if it’s an individual employed by the City of West Linn or if it’s a firm. And for years, the Council has made the decision that the city attorney is the firm of Jordan Ramis.”

While the Jordan Ramis firm represents the city in an official capacity and staffs City Council meetings, Thornton is a city staff member who can be consulted on a day-to-day basis — and at a fixed cost.

“I think it has really taken this agency from being a small town city hall to be a very professionally run organization,” Wyatt said. “Tim (Ramis) and his colleagues also provide services, but it’s a different type of service because they’re not in the building and they’re not in on day-to-day conversations on what’s happening next, what’s coming up on agendas.”

Around the region

West Linn’s hybrid of both in-and-out of house legal services is unique to the area. Lake Oswego and Wilsonville, for instance, have a city attorney as well as assistant city attorneys — all in-house. Tualatin, Beaverton and Portland each have in-house city attorneys as well.

“Lake Oswego’s model is really something that should be looked to,” Wyatt said. “They have an in-house city attorney that reports to the City Council and has absolutely no reporting authority to the city manager. Does that mean they never talk? Absolutely not. Most local governments have an in-house city attorney, and the city manager and city attorney are running together on projects.”

Working with in-house attorneys prevents any conflicts of interest, Wyatt said.

“I think it comes down to, do you want a city attorney to only have one client? Or are you OK with your city attorney having multiple clients, which at times means they’re conflicted out or they don’t have as much time available to dedicate just to the City of West Linn,” Wyatt said.

Thornton’s position was added to partially offset that issue, but it may not be a permanent solution.

Looking ahead

For Perry, the concern comes down to a simple question: who is in charge?

“Your responsibility dictates your view,” Perry said. “It doesn’t mean you twist anything or change anything, it’s just your responsibilities. And when your responsibility is to the city manager, rather than City Council, it could potentially be a conflict of interest. That’s a cause for concern.”

She added that no matter how the Council chooses to organize the city’s legal structure, all attorneys should report directly to the City Council.

“Whether we have an in-house attorney or someone outside, I think it’s important that they report to the City Council,” Perry said, “so we know what they’re doing and where their responsibilities lie.”

Frank, who was on the city’s budget committee when the assistant city attorney position was added, said that focusing on who reports to whom is missing the point.

“There has been confusion of who Ms. Thornton’s client is,” Frank said. “Her client is the City of West Linn and she is always looking out for the best interest of the city at all times.”

Though the Council voted to continue funding for both the city attorney and assistant city attorney for the 2016-2017 biennium, discussions about the city’s future legal structure will likely take place later this summer.

Jordan, for his part, said the matter will be left up to the Council.

“Staff’s goal is to ensure that the city receives the best possible legal advice and service, and we take our cues from the Council on the preferred ways for that to happen,” Jordan said. “If that means a contracted firm as city attorney — great. If that means an in-house city attorney — great.

“The focus of this discussion should be on the quality of service that the city attorney provides to West Linn.”

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