July 6 2016 11:48 AM

Short staffed, city attorney contracts for outside law firm


Struggling to maintain basic legal operations, the City Attorney’s Office in Lansing is hiring outside legal counsel for various cases.

However, officials claim to have no idea how much those contracts with the firm, Plunkett Cooney, will cost the city of Lansing or the hourly rates for legal services.

“We have not received a billing from Plunkett Cooney on this matter as of yet,” wrote Joseph Abood, deputy city attorney, in an email to City Pulse last week.

“The cost of representation depends upon, among other things, how the case is determined. For instance, if the City prevails on Motions as opposed to having to undergo trial, the difference would be significant. Therefore, at this point, it is difficult if not impossible to predict the costs going forward.”

Unlike most government services contracts, outside counsel deals are done on a case-by-case basis.

The Office of the City Attorney, when it determines a need for outside legal counsel, selects a firm from a list approved by the City Council. When the office contracted with the law firm Dykema Gossett in January to negotiate the departure of former city attorney Janene McIntyre, a payment agreement was not inked until days after the firm began representing the city.

Lansing City Council President Judi Brown Clarke has fought the battle over pay to outside law firms before.

In August 2015, as chairwoman of the Committee on Ways and Means, Clarke tried to determine what the city was paying for outside legal counsel as well as why the city was $150,000 past due in paying some of those vendors. Her queries revealed that the full extent of the billing and costs associated with outside legal counsel were shrouded in mystery. The reason? The city worked with an outside billing agency to process and pay the billing from the law firms.

“I’m not surprised,” Clarke said Monday when reached by phone. “But one would think that the law firms on our list — which have been in business a long time — would be able to give a rough estimate of the costs associated with particular litigation.”

Also playing into the decision to hire Plunkett Cooney, and other outside legal firms, is a staffing issue in the office. The office was dealing with significant turnover issues even before McIntyre left in early March.

“It is at maintenance level in the City attorney’s Office,” said James Smiertka, who took over as city attorney on Friday. “So there needs to be some building up of the operation there.”

Smiertka said the office was down two attorneys and one paralegal. City budget records show the office is budgeted to have seven attorneys and four support staff. Before Smiertka started, the office would have been operating with only four attorneys.

He said he preferred that litigation would be handled “in-house.” But Abood said there was an added bonus in hiring the outside firm.

“Also, a significant advantage of utilizing outside counsel is that our office assigns assistant city attorneys to each case handled by outside counsel,” he said. “The advantage of participating in the matter with experienced, effective, and knowledgeable outside counsel positively augments our mentoring and provides invaluable case experience to our staff and especially our young attorneys.”

“It was an important consideration that Plunkett Cooney is also involved in a similar code compliance case in Federal Court on behalf of the City,” Abood wrote. “They are intimately familiar with the law in this field as well as the attorney for plaintiff in this matter who was also the attorney who filed the Federal code compliance case referenced above... it was believed, in considering the most effective litigation strategy moving forward, that Plunkett Cooney was in the best position to achieve the results desired on behalf of the City.”

The information was revealed in response to an inquiry into why the city had hired Plunkett Cooney to represent it in a lawsuit brought by Daniel Dario Trevino, owner of Hydroworld medical marijuana dispensaries. Trevino alleges in an eight-count suit filed May 25 in Ingham County Circuit Court that when a city electrical inspector red-tagged his properties in early May, during the execution of a federal search warrant, the inspector violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits, among other things, government officials from entering private property without a warrant. Trevino argues the federal search warrant did not cover a code compliance inspection.

That inspection, according to court filings, revealed substantial modifications to the electrical systems had been made in each of the facilities without permits or inspections, a violation of city building codes.