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Council opts to not pay bill
Bainbridge Island’s City Council opted not to pay its legal bills Wednesday after receiving an invoice that became the center of lengthy debate and strained relations on the dais.
At council’s weekly meeting, Council Member Bob Scales presented a bill for $3,553.50 from the law firm Inslee Best reflecting 15.60 hours of legal services dating between Jan. 5 and Jan. 16. The services covered the review of employment agreements and drafting of a separation agreement for City Manager Brenda Bauer. Council Member Steve Bonkowksi was also included in one of the conference calls noted on the bill.
“The whole event was clearly an ambush and in my perspective they’re trying to compromise the whole decision on Brenda,” Council Member David Ward said. “And I don’t think that will happen.”
Inslee Best has a contract with the city to provide legal services. Debate at Wednesday’s meeting centered on who has the authority to use those services.
The charges shed light on the first month of the new council and how Ward, working with Lester and Bonkowski, was keeping with his campaign rhetoric to change the city manager. The council approved a resolution on Feb. 1 to terminate Bauer’s contract and launch a search for a replacement.
However, Scales objected to Ward’s methods, including that some council members had gone beyond their authority and behind the backs of fellow council members, and had misused taxpayer money.
The council ultimately decided by a 4-3 vote – with Lester, Ward and Sarah Blossom in the minority – that the city will not be paying Inslee Best for the services they provided between Jan. 5-16. Scales pressed that the city attorney should have been used for the services Inslee Best provided.
“In our opinion the city attorney was clearly in a situation of a conflict of interest, which is exactly why they have a contract like that in place,” Ward said. “And the mayor (Lester) can engage those services, which she did.”
Scales said that he first became aware of the issue when Bonkowski presented him with a draft separation agreement around Jan. 16 that was written by and outside party. He had wanted to address the matter at the council’s retreats in January, but the city attorney was not available to attend.
Scales also had the issue scheduled for discussion at the Feb. 1 council meeting, but he left that meeting before the item came up for a vote.
Council Member Kirsten Hytopoulos agreed with Scales. In response to the revelation of the bill, Hytopoulos said Inslee Best should have known better, and that providing legal services to Lester and Ward was unethical. She said that the city should therefore not pay the bill altogether.
“Debbie Lester and Dave Ward did not have the authority to spend taxpayer dollars to hire a private attorney,” Scales said. “Therefore, if Inslee Best demands payment for the work that Debbie and Dave asked them to do, then Debbi and Dave will have to pay the bill themselves.”
According to Bauer, the budget allows for funds to be used by the executive department for outside legal services. She said that the city manager and the city attorney use those outside services to advice the council.
“The city attorney would select and engage outside legal counsel as needed, and supervise the work,” Bauer said. “In this case, the firm did not receive an engagement (or) assignment from the city attorney.”
City Attorney Will Patton told counsel that he did not use any of the material that Inslee Best provided when he assisted with drafting the recently passed separation agreement for Bauer’s contract. He further noted that he felt he did not have a conflict of interest in the matter since he represents the city and not the just city manager.
However, both Lester and Ward maintained that they felt Patton still had a conflict of interest as he works closely with Bauer, who hired him. Lester said that she felt confident that there was a conflict of interest after speaking with the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington.
According to Lester, the issue of the city’s ability to play Inslee Best was not brought up in her phone conversations with Rod Kasagama, who provided legal service for Inslee Best during Jan. 5-16.
“I was very surprised to see that there were people consulting with outside council and creating a draft separation agreement without including the rest of the council,” Hytopoulos said. “I kind of put my neck out there and said that even though we had different opinions we had all worked together...this isn’t consistent with that.”