Palm Coast Readies to Give Its City Attorneys a 15% Raise as Councilman Objects to Method
FlaglerLive | October 15, 2015
Palm Coast’s city attorneys are asking for a 15 percent raise, and they’re likely to get it, adding between $50,000 and $60,000 to the city’s annual legal bill of just under $400,000.
But the city council’s discussion on the matter then veered to the method through which the city administration was bringing forth the raise, without examining outside firms or bidding out the contract. Council member Steven Nobile, who’s had various run-ins with City Manager Jim Landon and fellow council members, objected to the method, suggesting it lacked accountability. Landon then called it “obnoxious” and “offensive” to go through the sort of exercise that only reaffirms a relationship with an existing contractor, prompting more displeasure from Nobile.
The discussion was the latest example of a recurring conflict between Nobile on one side and the council and the administration on the other. It underscores Nobile’s attempts to upend the city’s institutionalized—and, until now, unquestioned—way of doing business while reinforcing the extent to which most council members align themselves with that way of doing business, as represented by their city manager.
It had all started on a much lighter note.
Because the discussion had to do with lawyers—specifically, Palm Coast government’s contract with its lawyers, and more specifically, paying those lawyers more—it started with two jokes: “We’re recommending not to do this,” Started Jim Landon, the city manager. “How much is he lowering his cost?” went council member Bill McGuire.
Then it got serious, as the costs are: Palm Coast is budgeting $394,000 for legal services this year. Though Bill Reischmann is generally the city attorney who sits at workshop and business meetings, he represents Garganese, Weiss and D’Agresta, an Orlando firm that provides most of the legal services the city needs.
According to the current contract, the city pays its legal bills two ways. There’s an annual retainer of $270,000 (paid monthly, at $22,500.) That covers all services, including paralegal work and travel to and from the city. But it excludes all litigation work, legal opinions related to bonds and city debt and any specialized work relating to worker’s compensation, pensions, or matters where the attorney may have a conflict of interest.
That’s when the hourly billing kicks in: the current charge is $150 an hour for attorneys and $75 an hour for paralegals, with each travel to and from legal proceedings billed at $150.
The firm is asking to increase the retainer by $40,500 a year, to a total of $310,500, payable in monthly installments of $25,875.
Presenting the numbers to the city council Tuesday, City Manager Jim Landon framed the proposal as “about a 10 percent increase, if I recall,” and the subsequent conversation with council members was based on the 10 percent figure: the council was not presented with the existing contract’s numbers. Nor did council members check Landon’s figure.
In fact, it’s a 15 percent increase, and represents an increase of a third more than the cost of inflation since 2009. In other words, the $270,000-a-year retainer currently in place, when adjusted for inflation (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ calculator) would be $299,460. The firm is asking for that cost-of-living adjustment, plus $11,000.
A few department directors and managers aside, no local government employees, in the city or the county, have received anywhere near that sort of raise, even when cost of living is included, since 2009.
Palm Coast’s attorneys are asking for an even higher raise for their hourly rates: From $150 to $175 an hour, or a 16.7 percent raise, for attorneys, and from $75 to $90 for paralegals, a 20 percent raise.
The proposed amendment includes yet another addition to the older contract: Every Oct. 1, the hourly rate for both attorneys and paralegals will be increased in line with the Consumer Price Index for the Southern region, thus almost guaranteeing an annual raise that city and county employees do not receive absent affirmative action by their respective governing boards.
“It’s obnoxious and offensive to do that to an individual just to put on a show,” Landon said of making a law firm prove its worth if it’s not being fired.
The council hires only two employees: the city manager and the city attorney (or the firm that provides the city attorney). Landon, the city manager, discussed the matter from the administration’s perspective—which, in actuality, involves the city attorney far more than council members do. “Extremely pleased with the service we’re getting,” Landon said, “not just in my office but in our planning office and code, any time we’ve had issues, they’ve made adjustments for us etc. I can’t say enough good things,” he said.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t ask, did we try to get less than $150 an hour,” council member Steven Nobile asked.
“No, we did not go out to bid or ask for proposals,” Landon said. “It’s at least my opinion, it’s like a doctor, when you have a good doctor that you have a good relationship with, you don’t go see if you get a better price every time you need a doctor, and I think attorney—although he is technically not a city employee, he is or the firm is, fills the role of a constitutional officer, charter officer in this case. So if you want to change attorneys, just like you would an employee, you don’t go out and open up the position and say we’re going to look at what we have and then decide whether we’re going to do something better. If you’re going to get rid of Garganese, Weiss and D’Agresta, great, then you go out and get somebody else. But it’s more like an employment contract than it is a contract for a specific project.”
Nobile, who has run into conflicts on several recent occasions with Landon, pressed the point, saying he was looking out for the public. “Just like we looked at the engineering firm,” Nobile said, “we started with qualifications first, not just to have the dollars, but to have a comparison and have opened it up, and said OK, see, we did, but we’re still going this way because the points are much greater.”
“Once again,” Landon said, “with it being more of a personnel opposition, you fire them first and then you go out and go through the process.”“I don’t see that, he’s not a personnel,” Nobile said.
“He’s our personnel, he’s the city council’s personnel,” council member Jason DeLorenzo said.
Nobile insisted that he would likely approve staying with the council, but he wanted to show the public that the city had gone through the exercise of making the case for the firm. “I hear this from my constituents constantly,” he said. “Why did we not go for bids for this, why not for that. I mean, some people suggested why don’t we have an in-house” attorney.
“My opinion, based on a lot of experience because I’ve seen it happen,” Landon said, “you go through this little song and dance and you say yeah, we’re still going to go with this firm but we want to go through this process for the public. It’s obnoxious and offensive to do that to an individual just to put on a show.”
“No, what you’re being asked to do is prove why you want to stay,” Nobile said. “It’s not a song and a dance. It’s not a pony show that says we did this, so be quiet we’re going with this guy. What I’m saying is, you’re proving your case, and if you can’t prove your case, then we’ve got an issue.”
“If you truly want to go through that process, city council can do that,” Landon said.
There is no interest among council members to go in that direction. DeLorenzo said the discussion taking place just then was the justification for staying with the law firm. Nobile wasn;t satisfied: he wanted the sort of justification that, like a bid, can show the public why the city was sticking with the firm.
By then, all talk of the raise, which the council is expected to formalize by vote at its next business meeting, was forgotten.
Jon Netts, the mayor, recalled that the city at one point had its own, in-house attorney. DeLorenzo said he was surprised by the number of cities that still stick with in-house attorneys when they can draw on outside firms that themselves can then draw on a wider stable of attorneys.
The firm started working for Palm Coast government in January 2008. For the first 12 to 14 months, the firm billed the city an hourly rate. It then instituted the retainer. Reischmann told the council Tuesday that the work the firm provides now adds up to more than $23,000 a month, thus exceeding the retainer’s compensation. He said the new rate “is getting up to” the rates the firm is billing other local governments.