Council seeks in-house attorney

City of Gilroy

City Council voted to form a committee to look for an in-house attorney Feb. 24 – a sea change from its position since the early 1990s of using the City’s contracted legal firm, San Jose-based Berliner Cohen.
Mayor Pro Tempore Perry Woodward – who said he’s advocated for an in-house attorney for the past 17 years – brought the item before City Council each year since being elected in 2007.
“Do you know how many times I’ve consulted with (City Attorney) Linda Callon in the seven years I’ve been on the council? Never, because it costs money,” Woodward said.
The contracted firm model lacks accountability, he said, and the 5-2 vote last week to seek new representation was “long overdue.”
Heading a committee to seek Gilroy’s next city attorney in a national search will be Mayor Don Gage, Council Member Cat Tucker and Woodward. The process is expected to take between three and six months, Woodward said.
First, the committee will seek out a recruiter who will be tasked with looking for qualified candidates. The three-person team will interview recruiters that fit their requirements and approach City Council with a choice.
“Once we’ve done that, then the committee will move forward in a confidential process,” Woodward said. “Because it’s only three members of the council, that gives us some flexibility to work behind the scenes. People who apply for these jobs may not want their employer to know they’re applying.”
The committee will identify the top candidates for interviews.
“Then we’ll spend the better part of a day talking to those people and deciding who we want to move forward,” Woodward added, noting that eventually, the candidate will be introduced to the City Council before the formal approval process.
Tucker emphasized Feb. 24 that City Council’s move doesn’t mean its current legal team is doing anything wrong.
“I think Berliner Cohen has done an excellent job for our city over the past 20 years, but I believe it’s time for a fresh, new look,” Tucker said.
City Attorney Linda Callon, who alongside her colleagues at Berliner Cohen has served as Gilroy’s legal counsel for the past 23 years, is leaving the Garlic Capital this year – likely in May – she wrote in an email. She first contracted with the City in August 1991 and plans on scaling back the amount of time she spends practicing law.
“Berliner Cohen has always valued our working relationship with the City and City staff, and we look forward to continuing to work with the City in whatever capacity the council deems appropriate,” Callon said.
Woodward didn’t mince words explaining why he has opposed the contracted legal firm model of representation.
“I’ve never been particularly happy with the representation of the City by Berliner Cohen,” Woodward said.
Even as a councilman, he says “it’s been a struggle” to obtain copies of the invoices paid to Berliner Cohen by the City.
“They fight me,” he said. “When I want to see those invoices, they give me all kinds of grief. If you hired an attorney, and you never got to see the bills – somebody else saw the bills but they wouldn’t show you and they took the money out of your bank account – that would start to bug you.”
Explaining her support for the firm, Council Member Terri Aulman said she “can’t imagine” only having one attorney at the disposal of the City.
“You need staff to support them and outside consultants when they don’t have the expertise,” she said. “I look at Morgan Hill and they have one attorney and three staff (members). We have long-term pension obligations to consider when making a decision like this and I’m really very concerned about that.”
But Woodward takes issue with the fact City Council is not involved in the monthly review of the City Attorney’s bills each month. He said he “doesn’t even know” who approves the bills – but the funds are automatically withdrawn from the City’s coffers.
A request by the Dispatch for the total amount paid by the City to the San Jose-based firm in fiscal year 2013, submitted Feb. 27, was not returned as of Monday. During fiscal year 2012, the City paid $596,740 to Berliner Cohen for legal services.
Woodward said later that he doesn’t expect to see a cost savings using an in-house attorney within the first few years.
But if the City Attorney is available down the hall – and doesn’t require an hourly rate of $232 for an email or phone conversation – he expects the relationship to change for the better.
“If I can go down to see the mayor, pick up my mail and talk to the City Attorney, it’s an entirely different relationship. People don’t feel like they can contact the city attorney because they’re going to get a bill.”