Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Council Getting Lawyered Up!

Jeremy Boren lets the cat out of the bottle.

Councilman Jim Motznik said Shields' proposal is a waste of money because council has access to a staff of 12 to 15 lawyers in the city's Law Department who earn salaries ranging from $44,000 to Specter's top salary of $94,592.

"(Shields) wants to do this because he doesn't get the answers he likes when it comes to billboards or vehicles, the petty stuff that a few council members worry about," Motznik said. "It's kind of like going to a different doctor because you don't like your prognosis that this doctor is giving you." (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

Doug Shields spells out his reasons. Bill Peduto and Ricky Burgess are involved, somehow. Alecia Sirk says that Mayor Ravenstahl is pleased with Geroge Specter.

George Specter has no comment. Why would he?

Councilwoman Tonya Payne introduced a resolution Aug. 1 that year to put an attorney for council on retainer, after then-Mayor Bob O'Connor abruptly fired City Solicitor Susan Malie and two other top officials during a power struggle.

Payne argued then, as Shields does, that because the city charter allows the mayor to appoint and dismiss the city solicitor at will, the solicitor isn't likely to produce a legal opinion that contradicts the mayor's wishes for fear of political retribution.

Tonya Payne was right. From the Home Rule Charter:

Council shall have the following additional powers:

a. to employ or retain its own staff and consultants including a city clerk and an attorney qualified to practice law before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, who may act as a legal advisor to council, and may represent council as a body in legal proceedings. Council's attorney shall not represent the City as a municipal corporation in any legal proceeding;

This is the first of nine listed ordinary powers of council, before the more extraordinary ones are dealt with. It must have been fairly important to the framers, for reasons that ought to be immediately apparent.


  1. Repeat after me: Purse strings.

    If council is upset with the present city attorney -- and I called for his head years ago as he is nearly worthless -- then council needs to nuke that department's funds. Starve em.

    Meanwhile, our council would NEVER spend less. They'd rather spend DOUBLE. Pay those that don't do the work. And, pay new sources to do work you want, even if it amounts to little.

    The needs of the city will not be realized upon the hiring more lawyers.

    I say the city could move ahead more quickly after it fires a bunch -- if not all -- of them.

    My solution: I'd love to see city council go to the OVERLORDS and get their lawyers to do the necessary legal wranglings for the super majority will of city council. But, council doesn't have a super majority. And, council is still going to be paying for the mayor's attorney. And, council does not have a clue as to how to navigate its way out of a wet paper bag.

  2. "If council is upset with the present city attorney -- and I called for his head years ago as he is nearly worthless -- then council needs to nuke that department's funds. Starve em."

    That is the craziest idea I have ever heard. One cannot nuke and starve one's own legal department. Not in the middle of living life. Oh my goodness.

  3. On balance Council having its own lawyer strikes me as a bad idea. Council's lawyer would be obliged to Council for his/her job, and so would render opinions favorable to Council. The administration's lawyer and Council's lawyer might tangle, even sue each other. Plus conflicting guidance would confuse would-be developers. But we need something, maybe (dare I say it) an elected city lawyer. That way removing him/her would be more difficult. Alternatively we could have a Mayor who acts like an adult.

  4. Ed, I gave your idea some thought, and it is tempting but I don't like it.

    1) An "elected" solicitor would just as easily be beholden to his or her own political supporters, own contributors ... this could simply be another political fief to run amok, only with the power to do real damage. It does not solve the essential problem of the One Oracle of Law who must serve too many masters.

    2) Council and the Executive are two coequal entities already. They already DO tangle, and they already CAN sue each other if they feel one has tread outside the law (as we well know.)

    It is upsetting perhaps to reflect that the mayor and council can sometimes be at odds, but that is how our form of government works. It is a matter of routine and a sign of health. To deny one side the benefit of legal aid is to say, "Thou shalt not eat of the tree of knowledge," and that is a little ridiculous on its face.

    Frankly, I think there is a *better* chance of these disputes avoiding court if they can be argued safely and efficiently in-house and across the table.

    The alternative is to continue to be reliant on the tender mercies of others for legal expertise to which Council is entitled -- however it comes, whenever it comes. Which is inefficient no matter how you look at it. All bodies of government have a responsibility to protect their institutional integrity.

  5. Well, a couple of things. An elected solicitor would have to answer to contributors, but at least (s)he couldn't be fired by the Mayor. Having his/her own fiefdom would at least mean (s)he would be free to render political opinions without fear of immediate retaliation.

    Second, sure, Council and the Mayor tangle, this Mayor and this Council maybe more than most. I said something the other day about Council providing adult supervision, but I wouldn't count on that being the case forever or even for long. Council with a pet lawyer might in fact want to start going around suing people and institutions. At the very least, nothing the Council's lawyer said would be private for very long.

    You hope that the Mayor and members of Council agree that some things are in the best interests of the city, and that they need to work together. But this Mayor and some members of Council don't seem to recognize that, and might use their respective lawyers as expensive clubs against each other.

    But I will concede, something has to give. Specter has not come through at some crucial moments.