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Goleta City Council Considers Changes to Legal Representation

Goleta city officials vote to issue an RFP for city attorney services.

The Goleta City Council voted 3-2 to issue a Request for Proposals for city attorney services on Monday, a move that may bring to a close the young city’s association with its current legal counsel, Burke, Williams & Sorensen, LLP.

The otherwise routine action was not without contention. Council member Jonny Wallis, the only slow-growth proponent on the council since the city’s inception in 2002, vented her concerns that the RFP was a result of political maneuvering by the development sector.

“I believe that some members of this council may have been lobbied by developers, their representatives and organizations to change our legal representation,” said Wallis. "I hope that that doesn’t play a part in what we may or may not do, because I think it’s pretty inappropriate for developers to be advocating on legal services when they many times give cause ... for legal work.”

Burke, Williams & Sorensen was the firm contracted by GoletaNow!, the slow-growth group that spearheaded Goleta’s final drive for incorporation and formed its first city council. The firm assisted the new city’s incorporation, then became Goleta’s legal counsel.

The typically more business- and development-friendly members of the council — Michael Bennett, Eric Onnen and Mayor Jean Blois — did not take the charge lightly.

“I take exception to Council member Wallis’ opinion that developers have influenced council members on this,” said Blois.

When questioned by Noozhawk, Bennet, Onnen and Blois all denied being approached by developers aiming specifically to change Goleta’s legal counsel, saying the RFP is merely a matter of business, and a standard practice in municipalities everywhere that contract for services. Their decision was also based on recommendations made by the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury in their May 2006 report on the cost of legal services in the county, they said.

“I want to know that we’re getting the best deal for the money we spent,” said Bennett, who said the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce advised him during his election campaign to lower legal costs by seeing into various options for legal representation, including in-house counsel.

“This is not a critique of the existing representation,” said Onnen. “The (RFP) process should have occurred years ago ... the attorneys we choose at the end of the day might be the same ones, and BWS has been invited to submit a proposal." It is not about removing curent legal counsel, and not about slow growth versus development, he said.

Council member Roger Aceves, however, reported on Monday that he had been approached by parties who were interested in seeing him work towards changing the city’s legal representation.

“I was contacted by three separate litigants who suggested and inferred that they would support a change in our attorney services,” he said at the meeting. Several lawsuits pending against the city are filed by people in the business and development community dissatisfied with the actions of the previous council. When pressed by Noozhawk, however, Aceves declined to name names.

“We have a city attorney who’s a partner in a firm that has 95 experienced attorneys experienced in every facet of (public) law. If I were a litigant, of course I’d want (the city) to change attorneys,” said Aceves. His original decision to back the RFP for business reasons changed in light of the current process to amend the city’s General Plan, which is the subject of several lawsuits. Changing legal representation amid these cases, he said, is not a good idea at this time.

There are several options the council may take during this process, said City Manager Dan Singer.

“It could be a clean break or a transition,” he said. The council may choose to keep BWS on hand for the currently pending cases while contracting with a new firm or in-house attorney, or choose to keep BWS. Singer estimates that the city could be conducting interviews by spring of 2008.


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