By Brenden West Assistant Editor
The Clinton Herald
CLINTON — CLINTON — A new direction may loom for Clinton regarding how it will fill its city attorney vacancy. However, the practice of contracting legal services appears common among similarly sized cities in Iowa.
Former attorney Jeff Farwell’s December resignation has kept the new Clinton City Council busy deliberating over how to move forward. Last week, the council appointed local firm Frey, Haufe and Current, P.L.C. to handle temporary counsel work at $160 per hour, and it discussed the long-term solution during a portion of Tuesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting.
Clinton can either hire a full-time replacement or contract services with a law group, and city administrator Jessica Kinser has been directed to research both avenues. Administrators at three comparable cities — Mason City, Burlington and Muscatine — all said the second option has worked out well for them.
“It’s nice to have the access we need, but not have to pay that salary of an individual,” said Brett Trout, Mason City city administrator. “You’re using the service when you need it, rather than when you have a staff person.”
Jim Ferneau, Burlington city manager, shared those sentiments.
“I like to be able to work with a firm that has good depth,” he said.
Clinton is the 18th largest city in Iowa with 26,647 citizens. The three cities surveyed rank between 16th and 22nd statewide and administrators reported varying estimated budget sizes (as low as $17.9 million and $35 million on the high).
Each municipality also has found its own unique way to apply contracted services. None of them use a single independent firm to cover all legal services, and all three created a new role called “the city prosecutor.”
“Essentially, it’s the work that’s being done with our police department,” Trout said.
“With regards to prosecution, it really helps to have somebody local,” Ferneau said. “That’s the guy who has to be in court on trial days.”
Burlington (which ranks just below Clinton with 25,665 citizens) filled its own city attorney vacancy within the last year. Its council hired Cedar Rapids group Lynch-Dallas to cover all municipal legal services. The city’s prosecutor handles claims against the city by individuals in court at approximately $30,000 annually. Lynch-Dallas handles municipal legal matters — land issues, union negotiations, civil rights and the like.
Attorney Pat O’Connell is considered Burlington’s “go-to” at the firm for these municipal matters at $135 per hour. O’Connell also happened to be at Tuesday’s COW meeting in Clinton to offer the council voluntary advice for contracting legal services.
As for availability — a concern voiced by several Clinton officials — Ferneau said if O’Connell is busy, someone else at the firm who specializes in municipal law is able to handle Burlington’s matters.
“We’ve had a very good experience with it,” Ferneau said. “We keep a lot of day-to-day contact with our attorneys.”
Legal service changes have taken place within the last five years for each city. Burlington and Muscatine divided theirs between prosecution and municipal work. Mason City hired two local firms to handle those specialties and added a third for economic development.
Regarding that firm — Ahlers and Cooney, P.C. out of Des Moines — Trout said there haven’t been any hiccups with responses either.
“We just started doing this about two years ago where we split it out like this with the firms,” he said. “I think it’s a good situation for us right now.”
If contracted services is the next step for Clinton, Kinser said Tuesday that it would require re-wording the city’s ordinance and an analysis of the current attorney role. Current city statute states the city attorney must also be a Clinton resident, and location was another primary concern for council members.
Muscatine switched to contracted services three years ago. Its council also shared those concerns, said city administrator Greg Mandsager. But even though his city is more than two hours removed from Des Moines-based Brick Gentry, P.C. (Muscatine’s contracted firm), Mandsager said the value of having attorneys with municipal law expertise is immeasurable. He added that finding that kind of knowledge within a city is also rare.
“I understand the case wholeheartedly for hiring locally,” he said. “But from my perspective, I can’t tell you how valuable it is to have experts in the fields. Municipal law is a very specialized category. Having somebody to deal with it on a daily basis is of utmost importance.
“We’re probably paying a little bit more up front,” he added. “What it’s saving us on the back end is incomparable. I am confident it is saving us money down the road.”
There are varying ways to apply contracted services, said Trout. Regardless of the route Clinton chooses to take, the important thing, he added, is to pick the best fit for the city.
“The key is to find out what works for you,” Trout said. “Do they need to have a staff person that’s there all the time, or can they find a firm or attorney that fits the need they have?”
Given those varying needs, Trout said he wouldn’t worry about what other cities are doing.