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In controversial vote, council picks new firm for Menlo Park's legal services

A divided Menlo Park City Council opted to end its longstanding ties with Menlo Park-based law firm Jorgenson, Siegel, McClure and Flegel in favor of a new firm for its legal services. Almanac file photo.

In a tense 3-2 vote, the Menlo Park City Council opted to end its decadeslong ties with the Menlo Park-based law firm Jorgenson, Siegel, McClure and Flegel in favor of a new contract with the firm Burke, Williams and Sorensen, which has offices statewide.

Mayor Drew Combs and Councilman Ray Mueller were opposed to the new city attorney contract, while Vice Mayor Betsy Nash and council members Jen Wolosin and Cecilia Taylor voted to approve it.

The designated city attorney for Menlo Park will be attorney Nira Doherty. She is currently interim city attorney for South Lake Tahoe, general counsel for the Tahoe Transportation District and assistant city attorney for the cities of St. Helena and Pacifica, according to the Burke Williams Sorenson website.

She graduated from law school at University of California, Davis and college at University of California, Berkeley, according to her firm's website.

During the council's discussion, Councilwoman Betsy Nash said that Doherty would be working solely with the city, but when Mueller asked for that to be written into the contract, Nash and Wolosin declined to add it.

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Wolosin said that Doherty may still do some consulting with the jurisdictions she is currently working with, adding, "I'm confident we are going to be the priority for her."

The new contract treats the city attorney like an independent contractor and pays an hourly rate, without a retainer fee or cap on general legal services. Services will be generally billed at rates of $270 to $305 per hour, while paralegals are billed at $135 per hour, according to a staff report. The program will also increase hourly rates $5 per year as a cost of living adjustment starting July 1, 2022.

Since former City Attorney Bill McClure retired, attorney Cara Silver from the Jorgenson, Siegel, McClure & Flegel firm has worked as the city's interim city attorney on a month-to-month agreement, according to a staff report.

Last year, the council created an ad hoc committee with members Mueller and Combs to discuss recruitment for city attorney services, and the city put out a request for proposals for city attorney services.

In addition, in November, after the initial request for proposals had gone out, Mueller, Combs and then-Councilwoman Catherine Carlton had made a closed-session recommendation to the future City Council to retain the existing city attorney, noted special counsel Greg Rubens.

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Council members Carlton and Nash were appointed to analyze the proposals and perform reference checks, according to the report.

Then, on Feb. 9, the new council majority Nash, Taylor and Wolosin moved forward with asking staff and special counsel to negotiate the final terms for a full service agreement with Doherty to become the new designated city attorney, according to the report.

Combs explained his opposition to the decision for several reasons, saying that the transition to a new firm would be "incredibly disruptive." The city's existing firm is involved in dozens of legal matters and "has an insane amount of institutional knowledge," he said. In addition, staff had "nothing but complimentary things to say about the interim city attorney and services provided by the Jorgenson firm," he said.

"No one has laid out to me the exact value add of this transition," Combs said, noting that nobody had made a case for any specific type of expertise the new law firm would add, or anything that had been lacking from the former firm.

Mueller said he disagreed with the council majority's decision because the new firm is more expensive, has more clients, and its locations are farther away from Menlo Park than the previous firm's.

"Basically, all the 'mores' is less in services to the city," he said. "It's going to take more time to get critical projects done in our city. We are already backlogged because of the pandemic."

"We already had a problem before the pandemic where people thought the city was slow," Mueller said. Now, he said, "we're going to pay more money and move slower."

"I hope I'm proved wrong," he added.

In a statement by Nash and Wolosin, which Wolosin read, the two council members said that the "decision is not one taken lightly" and that they believed Doherty is the "right fit for Menlo Park."

Today, they argued, Menlo Park has "unprecedented legal needs" with the large amount of development in the city's Bayfront area and other complex land use, public health, safety, election and labor law needs, and that they believed the city would benefit from the legal advice of a firm with "broad, multi-city experience."

After hearing the statement, Combs responded, "If I'm paying more for something, I want someone to be very specific about why. … It still hasn't been presented to me."

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In controversial vote, council picks new firm for Menlo Park's legal services

by / Almanac

Uploaded: Thu, Feb 25, 2021, 2:56 pm

In a tense 3-2 vote, the Menlo Park City Council opted to end its decadeslong ties with the Menlo Park-based law firm Jorgenson, Siegel, McClure and Flegel in favor of a new contract with the firm Burke, Williams and Sorensen, which has offices statewide.

Mayor Drew Combs and Councilman Ray Mueller were opposed to the new city attorney contract, while Vice Mayor Betsy Nash and council members Jen Wolosin and Cecilia Taylor voted to approve it.

The designated city attorney for Menlo Park will be attorney Nira Doherty. She is currently interim city attorney for South Lake Tahoe, general counsel for the Tahoe Transportation District and assistant city attorney for the cities of St. Helena and Pacifica, according to the Burke Williams Sorenson website.

She graduated from law school at University of California, Davis and college at University of California, Berkeley, according to her firm's website.

During the council's discussion, Councilwoman Betsy Nash said that Doherty would be working solely with the city, but when Mueller asked for that to be written into the contract, Nash and Wolosin declined to add it.

Wolosin said that Doherty may still do some consulting with the jurisdictions she is currently working with, adding, "I'm confident we are going to be the priority for her."

The new contract treats the city attorney like an independent contractor and pays an hourly rate, without a retainer fee or cap on general legal services. Services will be generally billed at rates of $270 to $305 per hour, while paralegals are billed at $135 per hour, according to a staff report. The program will also increase hourly rates $5 per year as a cost of living adjustment starting July 1, 2022.

Since former City Attorney Bill McClure retired, attorney Cara Silver from the Jorgenson, Siegel, McClure & Flegel firm has worked as the city's interim city attorney on a month-to-month agreement, according to a staff report.

Last year, the council created an ad hoc committee with members Mueller and Combs to discuss recruitment for city attorney services, and the city put out a request for proposals for city attorney services.

In addition, in November, after the initial request for proposals had gone out, Mueller, Combs and then-Councilwoman Catherine Carlton had made a closed-session recommendation to the future City Council to retain the existing city attorney, noted special counsel Greg Rubens.

Council members Carlton and Nash were appointed to analyze the proposals and perform reference checks, according to the report.

Then, on Feb. 9, the new council majority Nash, Taylor and Wolosin moved forward with asking staff and special counsel to negotiate the final terms for a full service agreement with Doherty to become the new designated city attorney, according to the report.

Combs explained his opposition to the decision for several reasons, saying that the transition to a new firm would be "incredibly disruptive." The city's existing firm is involved in dozens of legal matters and "has an insane amount of institutional knowledge," he said. In addition, staff had "nothing but complimentary things to say about the interim city attorney and services provided by the Jorgenson firm," he said.

"No one has laid out to me the exact value add of this transition," Combs said, noting that nobody had made a case for any specific type of expertise the new law firm would add, or anything that had been lacking from the former firm.

Mueller said he disagreed with the council majority's decision because the new firm is more expensive, has more clients, and its locations are farther away from Menlo Park than the previous firm's.

"Basically, all the 'mores' is less in services to the city," he said. "It's going to take more time to get critical projects done in our city. We are already backlogged because of the pandemic."

"We already had a problem before the pandemic where people thought the city was slow," Mueller said. Now, he said, "we're going to pay more money and move slower."

"I hope I'm proved wrong," he added.

In a statement by Nash and Wolosin, which Wolosin read, the two council members said that the "decision is not one taken lightly" and that they believed Doherty is the "right fit for Menlo Park."

Today, they argued, Menlo Park has "unprecedented legal needs" with the large amount of development in the city's Bayfront area and other complex land use, public health, safety, election and labor law needs, and that they believed the city would benefit from the legal advice of a firm with "broad, multi-city experience."

After hearing the statement, Combs responded, "If I'm paying more for something, I want someone to be very specific about why. … It still hasn't been presented to me."

Comments

Happy Resident
Registered user
Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Feb 25, 2021 at 3:04 pm
Happy Resident, Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
Registered user
on Feb 25, 2021 at 3:04 pm

Remember the old saying "if it ain't broke don't fix it" well the council has just fixed something that has been working well for decades -


Reference Check
Registered user
Menlo Park: The Willows
on Feb 25, 2021 at 5:24 pm
Reference Check, Menlo Park: The Willows
Registered user
on Feb 25, 2021 at 5:24 pm

According to the South Lake Tahoe website, Ms. Doherty is not their city attorney. Heather Stroud has been the city attorney since 2018.


Observer
Registered user
Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Feb 26, 2021 at 12:48 pm
Observer, Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
Registered user
on Feb 26, 2021 at 12:48 pm

The Menlo Together cohort now controls the council 3-2. Expect more decisions that reflect the group's hidden and not-so-hidden agenda.


SoodyQ
Registered user
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 27, 2021 at 2:29 pm
SoodyQ, Menlo Park: Downtown
Registered user
on Feb 27, 2021 at 2:29 pm

There is nothing 'unbroken' when the same contractor has the contract for one of the most powerful positions in a city government for over 60 years. Allowing it to retain such contract in perpetuity is undoubtedly ill-advised.

I hope that the new firm can competently represent the City of Menlo Park. That said, change and fear of change should not hinder progress. Many of the new contract provisions were not even present in the original contract or its amendments with the former city attorney. It is refreshing to see that the new contract includes so much more than the old one (and its amendments). What never made sense was that the former firm's representative, although termed as 'independent contractor,' received certain compensation that only employees are to receive. Thus its full compensation was no less than the current firm's and perhaps even higher. So making the cost comparison is not quite a 1 to 1.

While institutional knowledge is critical in any organization, what is being confused here, is which institution should retain that knowledge. In this case, that institution is the City and not its contractor. Even in the same organization, relying on any one person is not what 'institutional knowledge' refers to, let alone an outside contractor. If the City wishes to retain institutional knowledge within the City, it must bring the function entirely in-house. I trust the former firm will exercise its best efforts to transfer files and knowledge that belongs to the City to the City and the new firm.

I hope that now that the decision has been made, all the council members and city management support the new firm to ensure that it is destined for success in its representation of Menlo Park.

Thank you, Council, for making this much-needed change.


Lynne Bramlett
Registered user
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 28, 2021 at 4:20 pm
Lynne Bramlett, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
Registered user
on Feb 28, 2021 at 4:20 pm

I concur with Soody’s comments. In addition, the prior City Attorney’s firm also received ample fees paid by developers doing business before Menlo Park.

However, I am most troubled by the prior firm’s inadequate legal advice and the lack of a focus on protecting the public good, especially our most vulnerable residents. The District 1 residents also live in an area with the most predicted impact from natural disasters.

Some laws we haven’t followed along with a major conflict of interest:
• The ConnectMenlo so-called General Plan update which concentrated development in District 1 as a way to generate revenue. The effort was an illegal substitution for an authentic General Plan Update. The public and Council were assured that the CM process would follow all applicable laws. It did not. Our trust was misplaced. The Statue of Limitations has unfortunately passed. However, it’s not too late for the new City Attorney to do something about the egregious harm done to the Belle Haven Community via the CM zoning changes.

• A major property owner in District 1 also received a seat on the CM Advisory Committee. This developer benefitted materially from the CM zoning changes that he helped oversee. This represents a major conflict of interest.

• The City needed the threat of a lawsuit from East Palo Alto to update its Housing Element. The City has concentrated affordable housing in the Belle Haven area in violation of the Fair Housing Act provisions. In addition, the last Housing Element update unfairly concentrated the new housing in District 1 instead of evenly distributing it throughout the City.

There are other laws that we haven't been following.

The SB1000 Environmental Justice law was passed before the CM zoning changes were approved. The Environmental Justice movement has focused on fixing the kinds of egregiously unfair land use policies that CM exemplifies. The City Attorney’s office should have been aware of this law and brought it to the attention of Council before it was asked to approve ConnectMenlo.


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