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."