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Goleta to Change Legal Representation

Council takes steps to create the city's own legal department rather than use contract counsel.

After some tense dialogue at the dais, the Goleta City Council on Tuesday voted narrowly to move toward recruitment of in-house counsel and the creation of a new city legal department. The city has been represented by a Riverside law firm on a contract basis since its 2001 incorporation.

The 3-2 vote, with Council members Roger Aceves and Jonny Wallis dissenting, comes after months of analysis by city staff and a subcommittee composed of Council members Jean Blois and Eric Onnen, on the benefits of a contractual relationship with the city’s current legal services provider, Burke, Williams & Sorensen, a firm that specializes in municipal law, a city-employed attorney or a combination of both.

With both sides citing cost-effectiveness, the opposing members of the council argued their opinions, with Aceves and Wallis wanting to keep the city’s legal services as they are, and Blois and Onnen pushing for in-house counsel.

Burke, Williams & Sorensen is the Riverside law firm that was first hired by GoletaNow!, the group that headed the city’s 2001 incorporation. The firm has represented the lawsuit-embattled city ever since, on cases such as the ongoing mobile home park conversion suit filed by Daniel Guggenheim and the recently won Residences at Sandpiper development case that went to the state Supreme Court.

?I think we have very good legal counsel,? said Wallis, referring to the breadth of BWS’ services, which the city pays for on an hourly basis.  A new city attorney would have to spend time learning the ropes of Goleta’s several legal battles, she pointed out, and there would be times when his or her services would not be required but the city would have to pay for that time as well.

Onnen, meanwhile, pointed out the several applications from firms and individuals gathered when the city late last year issued a Request for Proposals for legal services, a move that passed with the same narrow vote. The proposed wages were lower, said Onnen, and a Request for Proposal should have been issued long ago.

“We should have done this years ago,” he said. “We had a responsibility and we should have done it.”

Goleta’s average annual outlay for total legal services from 2005 to 2008 is about $687,000, roughly half of which was spent on litigation. According to City Attorney Brian Pierik, the cost for a new city like Goleta is high in the first few years after incorporation, but generally tapers off as the city matures.

For Aceves, it was a matter of not enough information. Discussions, he said, were somewhat limited to the possibility of hiring in-house counsel, but the study of contract legal services had, in his opinion, not yet been completed.

?I want all the facts before I make a the best decision,” he said. “You can’t give me half the facts and expect me to vote yes.?

Eight applications from individuals and eight applications from law firms were submitted to the city, and the council and city staff interviewed the selected in-house candidates.

It is likely that the city will both create a new legal department, consisting of a full-time attorney and a legal secretary or a junior associate, and retain BWS’ services for the ongoing legal matters.

“(The committee) had proposals from the individuals and we had proposals from the contract firms,” said Blois. “And we thought it would be appropriate to interview the in-house candidates first.”

According to Blois, the hired city attorney’s experience and breadth of knowledge would inform the choice for contract services.

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