City attorney job up in air

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Bucking history and trends, Littleton City Council will review proposals from law firms to fill the role of city attorney rather than immediately replace Kirsten Crawford, who resigned in February.

“The trend is to move in-house,” City Manager Michael Penny told council on March 12. But he wants to explore using contract services, which could range from filling the position to providing all of the city’s legal services.

Penny’s staff report notes that recent turnover might lead potential candidates to view the position as in flux, resulting in less desirable applicants wanting more incentives to take the job.

Crawford held the job for less than a year after Suzanne Staiert’s controversial firing in 2011 after just three years.

“Because of this, it is not recommended that the city attorney position be in-house staff at this time,” he wrote.

He also wants to cut the position to half time, while Deputy City Attorney Kristen Schledorn’s position would remain full-time. That could be accomplished, he said, by leaning more on department heads and attorneys with Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency, of which the city is a member.

“The administrative staff needs to take a stronger role and responsibility in knowing the code,” said Penny.

He said a firm would have wider resources than an individual, which could reduce the need for using specialized attorneys for things like land-use issues — likely to increase given renewed interest from developers.

In 2009, the city spent about $24,000 on outside legal services and nearly $500,000 on internal legal personnel. This year’s budget anticipates those numbers to be $77,550 and $433,370, respectively.

Penny sees value in having someone in the office every day, but noted a contractor could have regular hours there. Other staffing questions are up in the air for the department, which includes Schledorn, a legal administrator, City Prosecutor Tricia McCarthy and her assistant.

“The need for legal support services would need to be evaluated under this option, as a firm may be able to provide support services and existing city staff duties reassigned to reduce costs,” he wrote.

Personnel and operational costs for the four-person office are about $221 an hour. Partners in private firms average $180 to $210 an hour.

“Although initially discussed as a potential cost savings, the option selected must provide the staff and council with high-quality legal representation, and it is very important that individual or option selected ‘fits’ with the city,” wrote Penny.

Only Councilor Peggy Cole was against Penny’s proposal, saying she wants to keep the job full-time and in house.

“It just has a stronger feel and connection to the community,” she said.

“I’m OK with going for an RFP (request for proposal), because we always can turn it down if we don’t like it,” said Councilor Jim Taylor.