Bellevue lawyer, Bainbridge law

(Second of three parts)

When Sam Granato took up the gavel as mayor of Winslow in January of 1990, one of his first actions was to replace islander Bob Conoley as city attorney.

He instead appointed Bellevue lawyer Rod Kaseguma and his firm of Inslee, Best, Doezie & Ryder.

Charles Averill, a member of the city council at the time, said the versatility of a law firm was the principal attraction of the new arrangement.

“(Kaseguma) was affiliated with a law firm that had expertise in a number of areas related to city government,” Averill said. “There was a feeling that it was time to move away from a solo practitioner.”

The move has proved enduring. After 13 years and five mayors, Kaseguma remains Bainbridge’s city attorney, giving him a longer tenure with Bainbridge Island than city Administrator Lynn Nordby or any of the city’s department heads.

Kaseguma describes his tenure with Bainbridge as “a wonderful relationship.”

“The appointed and elected officers I’ve dealt with over the years have appreciated the advice we’ve given them, and followed it to the extent possible,” he said.

Kaseguma said that his advice often involves pointing out legal risks, and that sometimes the city – particularly the council – will choose a direction even after being told that litigation is likely.

“I may tell them that if they take a position they may be sued – Papa Murphy’s is an example – but then the council has to make the decision,” Kaseguma said.

A 1975 graduate of Northwestern University’s law school, Kaseguma was an assistant city attorney in Seattle until going into private practice in 1985. He first became involved on the island when he was hired to establish a special Local Improvement District to pay for High School Road improvements.

While Kaseguma became the attorney on the dais – attending city council meetings, signing off on ordinances and acting as the point of contact with city officials – a number of his firm’s best attorneys represent the city on a regular basis.

Those who appear most frequently are Rosemary Larson, a 1988 graduate of the University of California’ Boalt Hall school of law, and Dawn Findlay, a 1993 Willamette law graduate.

In the course of a year, half a dozen other attorneys from the firm will advise the city on specialized matters or specific litigation, Kaseguma said.

Andy Maron, who maintains a Seattle law practice and who was elected to the city first all-island city council in 1991, said the services of an established law firm were particularly important after annexation.

“We were a new city with a learning curve, and we wanted a firm with broad expertise,” Maron said.

The fact that the firm was located in Bellevue was both a plus and a minus, he said. The plus: objectivity and a detachment from both local personalities and parochial battles.

“We liked having somebody who was not a resident of the island, particularly with land-use issues,” Maron said. “We could get impartial advice not encumbered by the fact that the attorney knew somebody, or that their kids knew somebody.”

But the minus was, and arguably remains, limited accessibility.

Even though Inslee, Best has a toll-free number and does not bill for time spent on the ferry, its lawyers aren’t physically present in day-to-day city operations.

And every time a question is asked, the attorneys’ billing “meter” begins to run.

Bainbridge city Administrator Lynn Nordby said staff members at all levels are encouraged to seek legal advice from Inslee, Best, but their questions generally are discussed with supervisors first.

Nordby also said that on routine issues, staff are encouraged first to call the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, an information source for which the city has already paid.

“Free advice is certainly our first choice,” Nordby said.

Kaseguma said that with modern communications, physical proximity is not an issue.

“With email, facsimiles and telephones, law firms can represent clients all over the world,” he said. “Our firm represents clients throughout Washington.”

Roger Lubovich, an island resident who is now Bremerton’s full-time, in-house city attorney and who has also represented other municipalities on a contract basis, said he found less information flowing when he was being paid by the hour.

“I think the staff can be reluctant to call an outside attorney,” Lubovich said.

He also said that an attorney with a first-hand knowledge of the facts is more useful than one who relies on a city official to explain the situation, simply because the official may not have the same appreciation as the attorney for the facts that are legally relevant.

Kaseguma does not believe fact-gathering is a problem – in fact, he said, it’s possible to know too much.

“The legally important facts are easily described,” he said. “Good legal advice does not depend on popular whim or what the neighbors are thinking, but on the applications of facts to law.”

Being local can taint objectivity, Kaseguma said.

“People who live there can have their objectivity colored by other factors, like who is asking the question and what you know about them,” he said.

Lubovich agrees in part. He says spending his work day in Bremerton gives him a highly useful degree of knowledge, but that being a resident of the city represented could create conflict-of-interest issues.

“I’m a waterfront property owner, so if I were working for the city of Bainbridge Island, I might have to recuse myself from the shoreline issues there,” Lubovich said.

Conoley, who maintains a Winslow practice and now serves as counsel for the Bainbridge Island Park and Recreation District, said the advantages of proximity far outweigh the disadvantages.

“When you’re right across the street, department heads have a desire and need to have a number of 30-second conversations with you,” he said. “When I was city attorney, I would have 15 to 20 conferences like that a day.”

Being part of the community made it possible to pick up knowledge “by accretion,” Conoley said, which would lead to better legal service.

Entanglements can be minimized, he said, by avoiding professional or personal situations that could create a conflict of interest. For example, Conoley resigned from the Bainbridge Performing Arts board of directors when he was charged with drafting a lease for the property on which the Playhouse sits.

“It’s a wisdom factor,” he said. “You shouldn’t color your legal opinions in an unfair way.

“It’s the equivalent of being a parish priest – you know about a lot of things that have happened, but you also know what it’s your responsibility to disregard.”

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