The Portola Valley Town Council has hired Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger to serve as the town's interim law firm for the next six to eight months following the departure of Town Attorney Cara Silver, who stepped down on May 22. Silver was one of several key town officials who departed in recent months amidst a contentious process for finalizing a state-mandated plan for creating more housing.
The Town Council voted 5-0 on Wednesday, May 24, to hire firm partner Catherine Engberg as interim town attorney while the town searches for permanent counsel. The San Francisco-based firm is charging the town higher rates than its previous legal counsel, Jorgenson, Siegel, McClure & Flegel, which worked for Portola Valley for decades.
The council also approved a $25,000 contract with its former law firm to help the transition.
Engberg, who received her law degree from Stanford University, has been with Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger since 2002. She has served as city attorney for Half Moon Bay and deputy city attorney for Saratoga and Orinda, according to her firm biography.
Jorgenson, Siegel, McClure & Flegel provided legal services to the town from 1996 until Silver's departure. Silver became town attorney in 2017 and tendered her resignation on April 21.
The Town Council held two closed session meetings, on April 28 and May 11, to discuss the matter, and appointed a subcommittee of council members Judith Hasko and Mary Hufty to prescreen the applicants. On May 11, the Town Council interviewed three candidates for an interim role.
Shute, Mihaly, & Weinberger may have a legal conflict related to a client at 880 Westridge Drive, the address of a home built in 1957 for the late Bill and Jean Lane of Sunset Magazine fame, which sold for $16 million in 2021. The town will be represented by other counsel on such matters, if needed, according to a staff report.
Staff also notes that due to high legal service activity this fiscal year due to litigation, state-mandated housing plans, the California Environmental Quality Act, and other legal matters, the current budget for legal services will need to be amended. Staff will bring back a budget amendment at a future council meeting for consideration.
Rates are higher with the new firm. Silver's firm charged $275 per hour for general services, while the new firm charges $340. Interim Town Manager Howard Young said these are market rate prices, but the town hopes to negotiate better rates when it signs on a permanent town attorney.
Engberg is also a licensed civil engineer.
Silver was among a group of key town staffers who have left since the start of the year. Silver noted that it's a difficult time to work for a local government.
Portola Valley Town Manager Jeremy Dennis left his role on March 17. Public Works Director Howard Young is filling the position on an interim basis while he continues to head the Public Works Department. Assistant Town Manager Melvin Gaines left in January to become the city manager in East Palo Alto. Town Clerk Melissa Thurman resigned on March 20. She is now serving as the city clerk for Los Altos.
"Many changes are coming down the pipeline and under-resourced cities are struggling to understand the breadth and impact of them," Silver said in April. "Communicating and implementing change is even more difficult. Portola Valley has an amazing town staff with expert knowledge in their subject fields. My hope is that community debate on these issues will leverage that expertise in order to comply with state mandates in a way that respects town values — I know it can be done."
View a video of the meeting here.