S E L E C T   C O M M I T T E E    O N    L E G A L    R E V I E W



MISSION STATEMENT  HERE.

New Commission Appointed at Selectmen's Meeting on June 21, 2012:
Members:  Jeff Eglash;  Howard Aibel;  Maryanne Bolella; Kevin Korsh; Angeles T. Rodriguez




LEGAL REVIEW
Final report presented and discussed, 9-3-13.






Legal Review, Second Meeting, August 27, 2012
Full Committee in attendance (one member not in this photo).

Selectman Dennis Tracey described the work of 2008 Committee.   Charge more circumscribed this time, in that only years between 2008 and 2011 to be reviewed.  Previously, there had been a seven year "look back" and the seven member Committee was able to pick particular situations to review in detail. 

This new Committee will next take steps to interview Town Administrator, Town Attorney and Land Use Director.  Similar approach, in About Town's thinking, as the newly reconstituted Board of Ethics took when reviewing complaint against candidate from 2011 election cycle.  Discussion of Freedom of Information strictures (i.e.  any discussions by full Select Committee or quorum of same, outside "meeting" actually would be a meeting, as explained by one member).  Attorneys (4) on the Committee plus one non-lawyer - but knowledge of FOI is most familiar to those who have operated in the public realm. 

Possible discussion with Board of Education staff.  Two members of the public present.  We left before election of chair. and Sec'y.



Special Board of Selectmen, Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 9:30am in the Town Hall Meeting Room
Discussion/decision regarding selecting members for the Committee.


Special Board of Selectmen, Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 11am in the Town Hall Meeting Room


After legal review: 'Verdict' favorable for town attorneys       
Weston FORUM
Written by Patricia Gay    
Wednesday, 25 June 2008 11:44 

The town of Weston is being well served by its legal counsel — G. Kenneth Bernhard and Patricia Sullivan, attorneys with Cohen and Wolf.

That is what Dennis Tracey, chairman of the Select Committee on Legal Review, reported to the Board of Selectmen on Thursday, June 19.  Winding up a six-month study and investigation, the committee gave its findings verbally to the board and said a written report would follow shortly.

In January, First Selectman Woody Bliss and Selectman Gayle Weinstein appointed the seven-member ad-hoc committee to review the performance of the town’s legal counsel, and make a recommendation as to whether the town should solicit proposals from other law firms.

Over the course of the next six months, the committee reviewed extensive documentation, cases, contracts, bills and billing statements, and information from towns comparable to Weston. It also interviewed 20 witnesses, and received written input from the public and through testimony at a public hearing.

First rate

Mr. Tracey said it was the committee’s finding that in terms of overall quality, town counsel’s representation of Weston has been “first rate.”

“Throughout their tenure, they have been responsive to the town’s boards and commissions. They have been flexible and practical and have done the job right,” Mr. Tracey said.

In addition to good performance, the firm’s fees, hourly rates, and retainer are in line with those in other towns, Mr. Tracey said. He noted the firm has even gone so far as to make things less expensive for the town by utilizing the services of state agencies whenever possible.

Cohen and Wolf was appointed as the town’s legal counsel in 2000. Mr. Bernhard represents the town in general matters, and Ms. Sullivan represents the town in land use matters.  In the current fiscal year, ending July 1, the town is paying Cohen and Wolf an annual retainer of $85,300, which covers general advice and office hours one day at week at town hall.  The firm receives additional money from the town’s litigation account and from parties that pay the town’s attorneys fees on matters.

According to Mr. Bernhard, the firm received approximately $228,070 from the town of Weston for calendar year 2005, $277,946 in 2006, and $309,000 in 2007.

Mr. Bernhard said he charges the town the rate of $200 an hour, half his usual billing rate.

Periodic review

As to whether the town should solicit proposals from other firms, Mr. Tracey said it makes sense to review the relationship with town counsel periodically to make sure it is effective, and possibly obtain bids or requests for proposals every three years. He recommended a special committee be formed to help the selectmen with that process.

The legal review committee also looked into whether the town should consider hiring an in-house attorney, dedicated to the town.

Mr. Tracey said the committee did not believe an in-house attorney would be in the best interest of Weston. “An in-house attorney works better for much bigger towns. A single, in-house attorney could not duplicate what the law firm does. Cohen and Wolf has a variety of attorneys. There would also be an increase in cost and some duplication with an in-house attorney,” Mr. Tracey said.

Faults

Although the committee found no faults with town counsel’s performance, it did have some issues with how town officials utilize town counsel’s services.  Mr. Tracey said the town attorneys could become more like “risk managers” if officials called on the attorneys earlier in a matter rather than later.

As an example, Mr. Tracey cited an incident involving a bidding package that town counsel was not brought in on until the bid went out. In addition, the contracts were not reviewed by counsel before they were signed.  There could be better coordination with the legal representation of boards and commissions and greater review and control over town counsel’s billings, Mr. Tracey said.

Committee member David Fleming discussed several other issues of concern and offered the committee’s recommendations:

• Some boards have the right to use their own counsel, but the Board of Selectmen controls the finances. All engagements of outside counsel should be reviewed first by the town attorney, and then submitted to the selectmen for approval.

• Every invoice from town counsel should be signed off by the board or commission that ordered the work.

• If litigation is festering and the town knows it will exceed the budget, the town administrator should keep the town attorney apprised of the budget.

• The town attorney should give regular quarterly status reports to the selectmen.

• All new contracts of $10,000 or more should be signed off by the town attorney. Any changes made to a contract should be reviewed by the town attorney. (Mr. Fleming said there were instances when contracts were modified but the parties did not discuss the legal implications with the town attorney.)

• Having the town attorney come to town hall on Wednesdays for office hours is helpful, but not everyone can make it during that time. There should be some alternate office hours.

• The town attorney should review the minutes of all boards and commissions on a regular basis.

• If the town attorney recommends advice and a board decides not to follow it, the board’s decision could be overridden by the Board of Selectmen.

• The town should maintain permanent records of all legal proceedings.

Delighted

After the meeting, Mr. Bernhard said he was delighted with the committee’s report. “After an exhaustive investigation, an impartial and extremely qualified citizens group has concluded that the services provided by my firm, my partner Pat Sullivan, and me are first-rate. We take a lot of pride in the hard work we provide to our clients. It is quite flattering to have someone agree that we give good legal services for good value,” he said.

Mr. Bliss said the town has been well served by Cohen and Wolf and admonished critics who spoke out against them at public meetings.

“I’m not surprised that the negative comments that came from a few residents were made by those who sued the town and lost those cases,” he said.

Ms. Weinstein said the review put an end to issues that had been floating around town. “I am hopeful that the Board of Selectmen can take the recommendations of the committee and create a better system of checks and balances to facilitate communication between our boards and our town attorney,” she said.

The next step, Ms. Weinstein said, will be to review the committee’s final written report. She said she is satisfied with town counsel’s reappointment.

Mr. Bliss and Ms. Weinstein thanked the committee for their hard work and diligence. “They did a good job,” Ms. Weinstein said.

Mr. Tracey said he is grateful to the members of the committee who did their best to work hard without political agendas.

The committee will prepare a publicly available report within the next week. It will disband on June 30.

In addition to Mr. Tracey and Mr. Fleming, other members of the Select Committee on Legal Review include Lincoln Briggs, Elayne Robertson Demby, Steven Ezzes, Douglas Olin, and Keith Watanabe.



Suits exhaust legal budget
Greenwich TIME
By Neil Vigdor
Published January 28 2008

Beset by a series of costly lawsuits, the town has already exceeded its budget for outside legal help by more than 100 percent this fiscal year, according to the town's chief legal counsel.

According to Town Attorney John Wayne Fox, the town's $600,000 budget for hiring outside lawyers has already been overspent by $750,000.

A number of high-profile lawsuits are the problem, Fox said in a memo to the members of the finance board's law committee.

One is the suit over access to Greenwich Point by Paul Kempner, a Stamford cyclist who was cited for trespassing in 2005 after he refused to pay the $10 nonresident daily admission fee to get into the park. Defending the town from that case, in U.S. District Court in New Haven, will likely cost $212,000 this year.

Fox, who was hired in 2005 for a base fee of $12,500 a month when the town outsourced much of its legal department functions, in turn hired the regional law firm Day Pitney to handle the matter. Last year the town paid Day Pitney an estimated $162,000 for the case.  While the Board of Estimate and Taxation and the Representative Town Meeting both overwhelmingly approved the additional funds for legal representation, some elected officials were uncomfortable with the situation, especially when Fox said some of the money had already be spent.

"That's a little bit of concern to me," said Jeffrey Ramer, a new member of the BET who was elected in November.

But Nancy Barton, a local lawyer who is a member of the BET's Law Committee, said the supplemental appropriation might not be sufficient.

"I think we all need to appreciate that he (Fox) probably will be back," Barton said.

Fox pointed out that he had to go back to the BET and RTM twice during the last fiscal year for supplemental appropriations because he exceeded his $500,000 budget for outside attorneys by $700,000.

In previous years, the town's attorney's office requested the full amount it anticipated for outside legal fees up front, but Fox had to report to the BET before the second half of the money was released. It's a process that should be reviewed, BET Chairman Stephen Walko said in a telephone interview.

Anticipated expenses from other lawsuits include:

* $260,000 for fighting a discrimination suit by police officers who said they were passed over for promotions because of their military service;

* $135,000 to fight a wrongful death suit by the family of a 22-year-old arson-murder victim, whose parents said his death could have been prevented had firefighters checked his entire apartment house during the blaze;

* $228,000 to appeal a judge's decision in favor of a police lieutenant who said he was wrongfully passed over for promotion, including the reimbursement for legal fees that the town's insurance carrier will pay.

In addition to those cases, Fox estimated the town's expenses of joining a multitown lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration's new flight paths over Fairfield County at $116,000 for the current fiscal year.

The total budget for the town's law department, which has six lawyers altogether, is $1.7 million for the current fiscal year. Fox said that some of the 250 lawsuits handled annually by his office require outside counsel to be hired because they involved municipal employees and could create a potential conflict of interest for the town.

The town's contract with Fox's Stamford law firm Curtis, Brinckerhoff & Barrett pays $12,500 per month for 50 hours of services and a $250 hourly fee for each additional hour Fox works. Most of the money goes to him, rather than his firm.When the arrangement with Fox was set up, officials offset the added cost by not filling a vacant assistant town attorney's post that would have paid about $107,000.

Fox said that he earned between $185,000 and $190,000 from the town for the 2007 calendar year but wrote-off $43,000 in billable expenses as a "courtesy discount."

"I'm not complaining about that," Fox said.