In The News › Jefferson Parish Council takes over evaluation of outside attorneys

Apr 17, 2013

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Contracting, Governance, Jefferson Parish

Jefferson Parish Council takes over evaluation of outside attorneys

By Manuel Torres, / The Times-Picayune
April 17, 2013

Jefferson Parish Council members will evaluate outside lawyers seeking to represent parish government, after the council on Wednesday took that screening ability away from parish administrators. Wednesday’s action was the latest skirmish between the council and Parish President John Young’s administration over parish contracting.

The council unanimously backed Councilman Mark Spears’ proposal to form a committee of three council members that will put together semi-annual lists of qualified outside attorneys. The council will pick law firms for some cases from those lists. The council committee will also select attorneys, in agreement with the parish’s insurers, in cases in which insurance covers the government’s liability.

“I felt the council needed some input,” Spears said.

But the watchdog Bureau of Governmental Research, which has been pushing to reduce the role of politicians in parish contracting, criticized the new process as giving the Parish Council too much power in hiring attorneys.

“The proposal gives the council too much discretion,” said BGR analyst Steven Stuart.

The council will soon appoint the first three members for the committee, which will serve one-year terms so other council members can be appointed in the future, Spears said.

Under the new set up, Parish Attorney Deborah Foshee’s office will be able to “advise” the new council legal committee, but council members won’t be bound by that advice. That leaves the parish attorney’s office with a reduced role in selecting outside lawyers.

“We’ll have to see how it works out,” Foshee said.

The move continued the political tug-of-war between the council and Young’s administration over contracting and other issues. Young has sought to curb the council’s virtually unbridled discretion to pick firms for some professional services without having to consider price or technical scores. The council, in turn, has sought to restrain Young’s authority to hire more employees outside the Civil Service system.

Jefferson has 24 staff lawyers in the parish attorney’s office, and it hires outside counsel to represent the parish in numerous cases. Until now, a committee formed by three parish administrators, one council staffer and at times an outside legal expert evaluated offers from law firms. The council decided which firm to hire from among the attorneys recommended by the administration’s committee. The ordinance approved Wednesday gives the council the power to narrow the pool of qualified attorneys on its own.

Foshee said she liked Spears’ proposal to create semi-annual lists of pre-qualified outside attorneys, which she said would speed up the selection of attorneys when a need arises. But she expressed concerns that the new council committee didn’t include an outside legal expert.

The council committee will have the ability to seek advice from an outside expert, but that person would not have a vote. Outside experts were allowed to vote in the administrative process.

Spears said the council considers recommendations on legal issues all the time, and that voters elected officials to make the decisions. “Ultimately it’s up to the council, and every four years constituents can evaluate those decisions,” Spears said.

Stuart, the BGR analysts, compared the new council process to the way the parish screens engineers for some projects. Stuart said a committee formed mostly by career officials and professional experts evaluates engineers. In contrast, the council’s new process puts elected officials in charge of evaluating attorneys.

Spears’ original proposal didn’t include the process to pick outside attorneys in cases covered by the parish’s insurers, but it was added Wednesday. The amendment will let the three-member council committee choose attorneys from among six firms pre-approved by the parish’s two insurers.

Four law firms are allowed in the parish’s general and auto liability insurance contract: Blue Williams; Connick & Connick; DeLaup & Enright; and Gaudry, Ranson, Higgins and Gremillion. District Attorney Paul Connick Jr. and his brother, Peter Connick, are partners at Connick & Connick, which has handled workers’ compensation cases.

The insurance contract covering public officials’ liability also includes Blue Williams; Connick & Connick; Campbell, McCranie, Sistrunk, Anzelmo & Hardy; and Phelps, Dunbar.

The council in March 2010 instructed the administration to explore whether handling more legal cases in-house would be more cost-effective than paying outside attorneys. That has led to a drastic reduction in payments to the six firms hired for lawsuits covered by parish insurers, from $1.2 million in 2010 to $576,000 in 2011 and $146,079 in 2012. The figures include only cases that are now closed, Foshee said.

Councilman Chris Roberts, however, said that in-house legal expenses “appear to be significantly up,” and that those costs are now under review.

Some of the six law firms pre-authorized by parish insurers contribute money to the campaigns of parish officials. But when asked, Spears on Wednesday dismissed suggestions that the timing of his proposal may be related to the reduction in payments to those firms.

“Ultimately, the recommendation from the parish attorney will have great weight in our decision, as it always have,” Spears said.

Apr 17, 2013

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Contracting, Governance, Jefferson Parish

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