Mayor wants in-house attorney

In an effort to rein in escalating legal expenses, the city administration wants to hire a staff attorney to handle routine legal business, communicate with the city’s outside attorneys and help staff “work through potential problems at the outset rather than after the problems have matured.”

At the urging of interim city Administrator Lee Walton, some $85,000 for salary and benefits for such a position has been included in the mayor’s preliminary budget, which will be unveiled at 7 p.m. tonight at a City Council workshop.

“I think we can save $125,000 per year with a staff attorney, and I hope a great deal more,” Walton said.

Rod Kaseguma of the Bellevue firm of Inslee, Best, Doezie and Ryder would retain the formal title of City Attorney.

But to cut down on the amount of time Kaseguma spends on city legal business – at his hourly rate of $165 – the staff attorney would “serve as a ‘clearinghouse’ for issues raised by staff and council which need to be referred to the City Attorney,” Walton wrote in a memo supporting the proposal.

The staff attorney would be available daily to work with staff and elected officials, something Walton hopes might avoid some of the litigation in which the city has been enmeshed. The staff attorney, rather than Kaseguma, would attend council meetings.

Walton also envisions the staff attorney drafting ordinances, contracts and resolutions, referring more complex matters to Kaseguma’s office.

With the exception of one year, 1997, Bainbridge Island has paid over $200,000 annually for legal counsel, most of that to Kaseguma’s firm.

The outlay for legal counseling in 2002 was $266,484, and for the first eight months of this year, the comparable sum was $245,000.

Walton believes the staff attorney can reduce that amount significantly by performing much of the counseling work.

Additionally, the city spends a substantial and escalating amount on litigation – the costs of lawsuits. That sum has risen from less than $50,000 in 1998 to $289,000 last year, and $150,000 in the first eight months of this year.

While the staff attorney would not be expected to conduct litigation, Walton believes that having ready advice might reduce the number of situations in which the city either brings or is subject to litigation.

“I certainly could be mistaken, but my perception is that some of the litigation...might have been avoided if there had been some legal oversight at the beginning,” he wrote.

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