Council hears options on replacing city attorney; no decision made

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, November 29, 2022

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The Albert Lea City Council on Monday opted to hold off on any action until its next meeting about replacing the city’s attorney after a presentation by the city manager about options to hire an in-house attorney or to contract with a firm for services.

City Manager Ian Rigg presented his findings after researching both options.

Ian Rigg

Rigg said elected officials began asking what other communities have for legal services and how much they spend about a year ago after a budget request was made for added staff in the City Attorney’s Office.

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Former City Attorney Kelly Martinez resigned in October, and the city has been contracting with an Austin firm for services, though that firm has indicated it was only interested in helping the city in the short-term through the end of the year.

Rigg said he gathered information about what other communities have for legal services and found that all but a few of cities Albert Lea’s size contract their services instead of having an in-house attorney and most spend less per capita.

At the direction of the council, Rigg said he gathered applications for both direct hire applicants and contracted services, and he said he was pleased with the results on both tracks.

He received five direct hire applications and interviewed three candidates for 30 minutes via Zoom. He noted staff’s fears that they would not be able to find a qualified candidate were unfounded, as they received good candidates.

The city also received three proposals for contracted services from larger firms, two of which included criminal prosecution. While they also appeared qualified and had good references, the only unfortunate aspect was that the firms were all 60 to 90 minutes away, Rigg said.

He said having a contracted service could save the city money if the 3rd Judicial District is able to catch up on its backlog of cases tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and if an arrangement is able to be made to have all of the city’s cases assigned to one or two days a week like in Winona and Brown counties to alleviate the number of days an attorney would need to be in the courtroom.

If the changes could be made in court administration and the backlog of cases is reduced, he said it could be possible to save $50,000 to $75,000 in levied taxes in 2023 and as much as $150,000 in 2024. He estimated only needing about 30 hours per week for legal services — 20 hours for criminal prosecution and 10 hours for other civil work.

He said the downfalls to going with the contracted option would be that the council or staff would not be able to call up or stop in to ask a legal question or bounce ideas off an in-house attorney — without being billed for those minutes — and there would probably be more code enforcement and zoning violations addressed with the direct hire.

While he didn’t want to undersell the benefits of having a direct hire, Rigg said if the council is more focused on cost savings or if they can’t decide which way they want to go, they should side with having the contracted services. He said it would be easier to dismiss a contract than it would be to dismiss an employee if the council decided to change course.

Sixth Ward Councilor Al “Minnow” Brooks said while he thinks it is good at any time for the council to look at potential cost savings, he also thinks it is beneficial to have someone in-house that can address questions as they arise.

“There’s a lot of legal things that do come up on a day-to-day basis,” Brooks said.

Second Ward Councilor Larry Baker said there have been preliminary discussions about the county potentially taking over some of the city’s prosecutorial services, though that wouldn’t be able to occur for least six months to a year out because of the backlog of cases. Having said that, however, he said he would be willing to go forward in the direction of the direct hire probably more so than hiring it out.

Mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr. said he thought the council should look at the contracted service, as there might be more of an opportunity to find experts in the various areas of law at a firm than finding one person who is an expert in all of the areas.

He said he supported trying it out for six months to a year and then revisiting it.

“Money is going to be a big issue in the coming years,” Rasmussen said.

First Ward Councilor Rich Murray said he was concerned about the courts being able to get through its backlog of cases and said there were still many questions that needed to be addressed.

He talked about how it was nice to have a legal opinion readily available when working on a project and to have someone who could get to know the city, the department heads and city manager, and the businesses in the community.

Murray said he would lean toward having someone in-house, though he thought it was a big decision for the councilors to have to make so quickly. He said he wanted to see more numbers.

Rigg said if a decision was not made until the next meeting, interviews would be pushed back and a decision on the replacement would likely not come until potentially February.

The council ultimately did not take a vote on the issue and are expected to take it up again at the Dec. 12 meeting.