What’s up with the City Attorney selection process?

attorneys On the Agenda for Monday’s Council meeting (pages 18-20 of the packet) is Approve RFP for Prosecuting City Attorney Services. Evidently, the process for selecting civil legal services is proceeding with the four finalists but they’re starting over for criminal prosecutorial services. It’s not really clear why, other than the oblique statement: (continued)

 

As a result of the interview process and discussions with the firms being interviewed, the interview panel believes it is in the best interest of the city to further solicit additional firms for criminal prosecutorial legal services at this time.

The REQUEST FOR PROPOSALS FOR ATTORNEY SERVICES, JUNE 2009 (RFP) was approved by the Northfield City Council in June. On the agenda for the Aug. 31 Council work session: Update on City Attorney selection process.

In the June 26 Friday Memo, Deb Little, City Clerk, wrote:

The schedule for the City Attorney RFP process has been revised due to scheduling conflicts. The revised schedule is as follows:

  • City Council Approval of RFP: June 15, 2009
  • Advertisement of RFP begins: June 18, 2009
  • Deadline for RFP: July 13, 2009 – 4:30 p.m.
  • Review RFP’s: July 20 – 24, 2009
  • Interviews: August 10 – 14, 2009 *
  • Update City Council on process: August 17, 2009 *
  • Consideration of approval of selected firm and award of contract by the City Council: Late August or early September 2009 *
  • New contract begins: January 1, 2010

* Proposed dates subject to change

96 thoughts on “What’s up with the City Attorney selection process?”

  1. I appreciate the desire of this council to bring some order and consistent methodology to the workings of city government. It’s easy to take potshots after the work is done, and I’m sympathetic to Mayor Rossing and the others on the committee who were authorized by the council to proceed, kept the council apprised along the way, then felt ambushed by public sentiment once the recommendation was made. I also understand the desire of some of the council members to support the result of a process which they authorized.

    However, after it became evident that there was strong public opinion about keeping the city’s legal services local, the council as our elected representatives should have considered that as new information that should be taken into account. That’s not bowing to political pressure; that’s their responsibility as elected officials in a representative democracy. “Sticking to their guns” doesn’t necessarily show strength, and rationalizing a decision on the grounds that “we followed the process” doesn’t mean the process followed was a good one. I would hope that the Council is able to learn on their feet and make process adjustments as necessary from this point forward.

    For example, it would have been prudent and helpful to have at least one person on the selection committee who understands the ins and outs of the work of the city attorneys. Having the selection committee made up exclusively of City staff (all of whom report to the city administrator) and only one elected representative (the mayor) was in retrospect not optimal. Just because the individuals involved have the closest contact with the city attorneys doesn’t mean they understand what criteria should be used in hiring one, or how that criteria should be weighted. That’s like saying that because I eat, I would know how to run a good restaurant. There should have been at least one practicing attorney on the selection committee.

    Yes, objections to the makeup of this committee should have been made earlier. Hindsight is 20/20; it’s easy now to see the shortcomings of the selection committee makeup. However, it was not easy to see where along the way any input might have been given, and to whom. Let’s learn from this and correct it next time.

    My biggest and most lasting concern is that the Council revise the way that selection criteria for professional services are weighted. In the case of some professional services, there is clear practical benefit to remaining local. The selection of the city attorneys, especially for prosecutorial services, is such a case. Whoever developed the scoresheet used by the selection committee did not have sufficient understanding of the importance of a local presence on a practical level.

    In addition, relying solely on the written proposals when evaluating the firms ignores a large and significant bit of information –that the services and capabilities of the Lampe firm have been clearly demonstrated for more than two decades. We know what we’re getting and what the actual costs are likely to be. There would not be unanswered questions about who would actually be showing up in court or being charged for mileage and/or driving time from the metro area. We would not be buying a pig in a poke. The certainty of that information should also have been factored into the scoring, and it clearly was not.

    I don’t want to stir up mud. What’s done is done, and the Lampe Law Group will go on providing excellent legal services to the community. I just hope that the council reexamines this process and improves on it for next time, because the process that was followed was not adequate to the task.

     

    1. Tracy:  Well said.  A lot of us were not only surprised with the recommendation of the Committee, but also surprised that the Council members were so adament in their defense of the process in spite of its shortcomings.  The lack of community input, the staff-dominated committee, and the big question of local versus out-of-town should have been a cause for pause.  

  2. Oops…forgot to add my disclaimer, for those of you who may not know: My husband is a partner in the Lampe firm, so technically and ethically I have an “interest” in their contract with the City.

    However, I also have to say that personally and financially this decision may actually benefit me, since it means that Lance can now take on many clients he’s had to turn away due to his partnership in the City Attorney’s office.

  3. Tracy : you bring up an excellent point in identifying the possible flaws in the structure of the score sheet.

    The last time this contract was up for bid, two local attorneys who applied said that it was useless because of the “weighting'” of the score sheet, which could only favor the existing firm because of the number  of points assigned to relevant (defined as NF) experience.

  4. Tracy,

    I only know about this issue from what I’ve read in the NNews and here, but I find your post articulate and very fair.  I think the flaws in the process seem to mirror ones this town has in handling a lot of controversial issues–there’s the idea that if people speak out strongly to raise objections, somehow they are anti-government or anti-change or something.  And then the critics are marginalized and those in power attempt to squelch and demean them.  Very sad.

    I’m buoyed a bit by your comments that the 2 local attorneys will go on to lead productive and possibly even more lucrative legal lives.  I share your hope that “the process” gets critically examined for the next time.

  5. Kathie:  The process of getting a new City Attorney is not over.  The contracts are going out for negotiation at this time.  The City Council can still reject all of the contracts if they don’t meet the intended standards of cost, access, etc. that one expects from professional services.  

    For example, will Northfield be getting Chris Hood and Elliot Knetsch every time, or will they be sending down their rookies to handle our affairs?  Will these folks be keeping regular office hours in Northfield and have the same availability that Lampe had?  I am hoping that the negotiating committee makes it clear that we expect them to be in court or at the City Council, and that we expect them to be available in person like Maren and Tim are.  

    I think it is also critical that the City examine the local versus out-of-town issue.  I’m watching the new bike trail being built.  There is Swanson and Morisette tax money being spent there.  There won’t be any Hood or Knetsch money there – ever. 

  6. David, Tracy and Kathie,

    Setting aside for a moment the merits of this particular decision, it seems to me that the underlying issue is that we’re seeing a different way of conducting city business. As Jane noted above, back in the summer, this council established the RFP, laid out a process for reviewing proposals, named members to the review committee, all without any comment or protest from the now-dissenting council members or the public. Four months later, we get a recommendation, a vote, and a backlash of criticism about the process.

    You really can’t have it both ways. The “old Northfield” way of doing business was to ignore process and pay attention only to the actual vote at the council. That seems to characterize the complaints about this particular decision. My optimism about this new council, and this new way of doing business is that it establishes a much clearer decision-making process. By the time something gets to the point of a vote, the issues have been clarified, analyzed and the solutions have become clear(er). Down this path lies the transparency many commentators on this forum want. But it may take a while for city-watchers to realize that the points of greatest leverage may at the beginning of a process, and during it, not at the end.

    On the merits of the city attorney decision I have one observation: over the past three or four years, the current city attorney hasn’t been very effective in keeping the city from causing some of its own troubles. Pick your issue: liquor store, personnel, rental code, etc. This doesn’t mean Ms. Swanson isn’t a good lawyer or didn’t try to help the city navigate difficult issues more effectively, but sometimes clients just stop listening to their advisors. When that’s the case, you need a new voice. I’d argue that’s where we are.

    The puzzle in this is why there apparently weren’t other local attorneys  bidding on the work. David, you are a strong advocate for hiring local. Why didn’t you bid for the job? Is the city such an undesirable client? or was there a tacit agreement among Northfield’s attorneys that the city’s business “belonged” to the  Lampe firm? If the latter, that strikes me as an “old Northfield” sort of thing… a bad habit we’re better off breaking.

  7. Randy- Very good points you raise, here. I would add this observation to your comment-

    “but sometimes clients just stop listening to their advisors. When that’s the case, you need a new voice.”

    Sometimes the problem is not with the voice but with the ears that are supposed to be listening.

  8. Randy:  You raise some good points.  But, the real question is whether the criticism is justified.  I think the criticism is more than justified.  From what I have heard from the Chamber, the legal community, and those who worked with the City Attornies, the overwhelming majority are not convinced that the Committee wanted the best attornies at the lowest prices.     

    So what if the process was set up and the committee (the Mayor and the staff) made a recommendation?  The next step is for the Council to analyze the decision, the reasons for the decision, and to decide if the advice is prudent.

    St. Olaf President Anderson commented about the “new” attitude at City Council.  He mentioned that he met with City officials one day last summer about working together.  The next day, in the paper, he saw that the City was proposing a streetlight assessment that would cost St. Olaf more than $20,000.  Why, he asked, didn’t City officials even mention it at their meeting?  Why didn’t they invite his comment?  Why weren’t they candid with him?  How was he supposed to trust them after that?

    It’s not as if there isn’t time to fix the flaws with this process.  There is no urgency to getting new City Attorneys, especially if it is true that the Committee has no complaints with the present attorneys.  If that is true, then the issue is all about price.  And, I am convinced that if the City even attempted to negotiate with Lampe’s office on price that they could have got a better deal.  But, they didn’t even attempt to negotiate.  

    In retrospect, it certainly appears that it was a stacked committee looking for a predestined result.  It it wasn’t – fine.  But, why didn’t they try to negotiate on price with Lampe?  What consideration, if any, did they give to having a local and available attorney?  What consideration did they give to having someone with institutional knowledge?  What consideration was given to the fact that Maren was City Attorney with all the prior difficulties?  What consideration was given to the fact that Hood is primarily a lobbyist?  Why was all this information kept semi-secret until the Council vote?

        

  9. Randy:  There was no indication that the City was dissatisfied with the legal services either on price or service.  We had put in bids before and never got a serious look. 

    Given how the other local attorney was treated, I doubt that we would have received a serious look this time either.  At least on the civil side, it looks like the result of the Committee was pre-determined in spite of the claims to the contrary.  In fact, I understood that one outside firm actually recommended that the City keep Swanson. 

  10. Hi Randy,

    Ok, first of all, I have no investment either way in the decision.  Don’t know Maren or Tim, have no way to assess their performance.  In hindsight, it seems a stupid move for them to bid only as a team–they in effect said “take us both or leave us” and the city council made the apparently unexpected move of leaving them.

     

    Second, I read Betsey’s comments about why she voted as she did and found those comments articulate, thoughtful, and well justified.

     

    My only problem is this:  Community members raised what I think ARE legitimate points that don’t seem to have been previously considered.  To wit:  when we factor in transportation costs, are the out-of-town firms really cheaper?  How much business will have to be delayed or handled differently because the lawyers won’t be easily accessible to lots of townspeople?

     

    The reaction to those legit questions is to point fingers at the law firm and accuse them of formenting dissent.  With the implication that the dissent is illegitimate, unfair, small-minded etc.  THAT’s what I’m having the problem with.  Some of the criticisms made seem to me ones that simply weren’t thought of–that happens when you start a new process.  ALL I’m asking for is that, during some sort of post-decision debriefing, someone think about HOW such factors COULD have been brought into the decision-making process.

     

    And, I guess I would hope that those who support the change in law firms (and I may well be one of them, if I thought hard enough about the issue) realize that others can disagree and still be regarded as good people who also care about the community and how it functions.

     

    That’s it.

  11. Kathie:  It is not “post-decision” yet.  If the contract negotiations fail, it will be back to the drawing board.

     

  12. David:  Ok, but is there any reason to believe the contract negotiations will fail?  Others have suggested this has “done deal” stamped on it, and I was just assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that that was true.

    1. Kathie:  The devil is in the details.  For example, I can’t imagine that Chris Hood has an extra 1000 hours a year to work on just the Northfield contract.  If he can’t give us the time, then what?   Elliot Knetsch says that he represents 6 or so other cities?  Are we going to get Mr. Knetsch every time?  Chances are quite good that neither of these folks plan on keeping office hours or having the availability that the Lampe firm had.   

      There might also be questions regarding travel time and philosophies about who the client is.

      I might be good for the negotiating committee to have a lawyer or two on the committee so that we are comparing apples to apples in the contracts.     

  13. Kathie, David L. is technically correct, but on a practical level, it’s probably a done deal.

    Randy, I agree with you that this council is committed to improving processes, and I think they’ve made good strides in that direction. However, our “new and improved” processes are not without flaws, and we need to be able to identify and correct those.

    You said,

    By the time something gets to the point of a vote, the issues have been clarified, analyzed and the solutions have become clear(er). Down this path lies the transparency many commentators on this forum want.

    This would have been ideal. However, in this particular case issues were not clarified, nor were they analyzed, by our elected officials, and they probably should have been.

    In retrospect, it would have been preferable for the council to direct the selection committee to submit their criteria, and the proposed scoring system, for council approval. This would have provided an opportunity for our elected officials to evaluate whether the scoring proposed by city staff adequately addressed all the issues, and would have provided for public input at an appropriate time in the process.

    In addition, this particular process was not very transparent. It was difficult to see where input might have been given along the way in this process. So thought should be given to how to improve that, as well. And of course, there’s the issue of the makeup of the selection committee, but I’ve addressed that before.

    My whole point here isn’t to complain about this particular outcome, but to point out ways in which the process should be improved. I believe that the result of the process used here will be found not to be in the best interest of the citizens of Northfield; that we will not see increases in efficiency and decreases in the cost of legal services; but time will tell.

    Meanwhile, I’m disappointed that a rather precedent-setting decision like this was jerry-rigged by city staff and rubber-stamped by the council because “we followed the process”.

  14. Okay, as was pointed out to me by a city council member, an hour and a half discussion and a 4-3 vote isn’t exactly a rubber stamp. But still….

  15. Traci, how do you support your assertion that this “precedent-setting decision”  was “jerry-rigged by city staff.”?  You can be disappointed by the decision, but will every decision the council and staff make which you don’t like be similarly disparaged?

  16. Barb, I think the decision was jerry-rigged because the evaluation criteria and the scoring process was developed by staff, not by our elected officials.  Given the way the process was shaped, there was no way a local firm could meet the criteria.

    I don’t think the city staff should be making policy decisions, so I reserve the right to “disparage” that when I think it happens. The council makes many decisions that I don’t necessarily like, but that’s how things go in a representative democracy.

  17. I am the “silent” Lampe partner. I would fill in from time to time, but my partners Maren Swanson and Tim Morisette carried 98% of the load. We’re not sure around here exactly how long our office has served as the city attorney for Northfield, but it’s been more than 50 years.  Maren and Tim have each been at it for more than 20 years. That’s a pretty good gig no matter how you look at it. And one might say that after all that time, it was time for a change. And of course, that is what the city council has said. We can accept that, and we have.

    I completely agree with the suggestion that the best time to question the process is when it is being formulated. The devil really is in the details. You can literally be defined out of a job. And that is really the issue here. Once the criteria for service is established, the application of those criteria is pretty straightforward. Had we been more vigilant, we would have known from the beginning that if ANY metro firm with multiple lawyers experienced in municipal law were to bid, we had no chance keep the job.

    The bigger issue is how we as a city define our priorities for the future. There are no services provided by any professional or retail concern in our  community (pick one – medical, accounting, architect, automotive, insurance, retail etc) that cannot be bested by a metro concern using the  the “depth and breadth” argument.  Someone in the metro area by definition will always be able to “one up” any Northfield business if that is the dominant concern.

    Look closely at how the committee treated the “buy local” angle, and you will see that whether or not a firm was local was simply not a consideration. Here is the pronouncement from the committee on this issue: “The Selection Committee is aware of the desire to retain local legal counsel and agrees with the concept if all other selection criteria are equal.” (emphasis added). The catch here, of course, is that all other selection criteria are never equal. No two law firms will ever be exactly the same in all other areas. The committee’s statement, therefore, is really just a play on words in which it appears to give deference to local counsel, without in fact giving any deference to local legal counsel.

    I am troubled by this viewpoint. I am of the belief that there is great value, both tangible and intangible, in members of this community trusting and relying on each other whenever we can. This is by no means an argument to accept inferior quality. The committee and the counsel bought into the argument that it’s bigger and better in the big city. This is nothing new. My experience and that of most of my out-state colleagues is that it’s only bigger in the big city. It’s not better. The Rice County courthouse files are replete with the stories of lawyers from big twin cities firms who lost cases here to local lawyers. For starters, we attended the same law schools as those lawyers did. And then there’s that small edge you get when you understand and know the local judges, the local lawyers, court personnel, and you know something about the folks who will be serving on your jury.

    Northfield in particular has an incredible wealth of intelligent, skilled,creative, and experienced professional and business people. Many of them (my wife among them) devote countless hours of their time, energy, expertise, and creativity to boards, committees, and commissions for the benefit of this city – all of which the city seems to accept willingly with no concerns that the quality of service is inferior to what it might receive elsewhere.

    I continue to believe that it makes a difference if you are providing service to your friends and neighbors – to the people you meet on the street; at local concerts and ball games and civic organizations and churches and the countless ways and times that we interact with each other. It makes a difference if you live here and own property and pay taxes and employ residents and patronize other businesses and devote your time and money to local charities and civic organizations. It makes a difference if you are available; if you take the time to talk with someone face to face, and whether you know something about that person or his or her family, or whether your willing to take the time to get to know them. It makes a difference if you know and understand the history of this town and are invested in its future.

    I believe we are all better served, in the long run, if we look to Northfield first to provide our goods and services, and not just when everything else is “equal”. I fear that if we don’t, the day is not far away when looking to Northfield won’t be an option at all.

  18. Lance:  Do you have any suggestions on how the Council can develop criteria that takes into consideration the value of shopping locally?

    I think the negotiating committee and the City Council have to revisit this issue when it comes time to develop and approve the contracts.  For example, if either attorney is going to charge for travel time, there is an additional cost that doesn’t exist with a local attorney.  There are also accessibility issues.  If either attorney isn’t available, we either have to do without the “expert” or take some rookie in the office.  

    Additionally, I think that there is a general policy question regarding how to factor in the issues of paying local property taxes, giving volunteer time to the community, knowing your client, and other factors that drive good decision-making.     

  19. Has anyone who looked over the materials from the new lawyers recommended by the selection committee noted the number of mentions of “annexation” in Mr. Hood’s resume?

    Forseeing? Forestalling? or just anticipating the possible need for such a depth of expertise …

  20. Kiffi – yes, I have read the materials Mr Hood provided and will note that he advised the city on the revision of our annexation ordinance last year (which was erroneously perceived as a step toward annexing Waterford Twp land).

    I believe the correct answer is “anticipating the need for such a depth of expertise” and I hope Mr Hood is following the Planning Commission’s recommendation on 11/24 regarding the Prawer-Gill property and the Council’s subsequent action.

  21. It appears that my comment in #70 was misinterpreted by some to be a negative comment re: Mr. Hoods expertise/experience with annexation issues. Actually, I think this much needed area of expertise, at this time, is an excellent  addition to the other skills of the city attorney, especially for a semi-rural community surrounded by townships with which the ‘city’ wishes to remain on good functioning terms.

    Since I tend to write long comments, it appears that my attempt at brevity was misleading…

     

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