Any city looking for ways to trim its budget ought to examine how much it spends on legal costs. However, that examination in Tarpon Springs has led to talk of hiring an in-house city attorney rather than continuing to use an outside firm. It's a bad idea. For confirmation, Tarpon Springs can look to its own history.
The city has been ably represented for more than 10 years by the private law firm of Frazer, Hubbard, Brandt, Trask and Yacavone of Dunedin, a legal practice that focuses on municipal law. John Hubbard was the city's primary attorney for much of that time. More recently, Jim Yacavone has filled the role. Both are competent attorneys who — and this is important — managed to avoid becoming controversial political figures in a city that feeds on political controversy.
But before then, the city had in-house attorneys who were city employees, and too often, they were at the center of controversy. An attorney who is entirely dependent on the city for his livelihood, and therefore dependent on the favor of his City Commission bosses, may be torn on whether to advise them objectively or tell them what they want to hear. An in-house attorney may be pressured by one or two aggressive commissioners, or may want to see how a commission majority is leaning before offering advice on hot issues.
And if they give advice one of their bosses doesn't like? Ask Herb Elliott, formerly an in-house attorney for the city, what can happen. He was forced out of the position twice — in 1987 and in 1992 — by city officials who disagreed with him or wanted him out of the way.
City Commissioner Jeff Larsen, the newest commission member, has pushed for the city to explore hiring an in-house attorney, but it isn't clear why. He has questioned the bills submitted by Yacavone, though no evidence has been presented of any wrongdoing. Neither has Larsen offered any specific complaints about the quality of legal advice provided by the Frazer Brandt firm.
Whatever the reason, Larsen even seems skeptical of the city staff's research comparing Tarpon's legal costs with those in other cities and showing that staffing a minimal in-house legal department, with one attorney and two legal assistants, would cost almost $324,500 a year.
In 2009, Tarpon Springs paid $327,697 to Yacavone's firm for legal services, but the number fell to $243,000 this year and is projected to be under $230,000 for 2011. The cost has been falling because the recession has changed the workload and Yacavone has been finding savings, such as no longer providing an attorney for meetings of some city advisory boards.
Nevertheless, on Tuesday the City Commission is scheduled to decide whether to support Larsen's idea to seek proposals from attorneys who want to be Tarpon's in-house city attorney.
City Manager Mark LeCouris is adamantly opposed to the idea of an in-house legal department. LeCouris is the former police chief and the son of former police chief and city manager Blaine LeCouris, and he knows Tarpon's history with in-house legal representation.
"We want an attorney making the best decision for you," LeCouris told commissioners. "You don't want other considerations going into that. We've seen here in the past that's not exactly the case."
The potential for the position to be politicized is only one of many good reasons to avoid making the switch. The city now gets the resources of a full law firm with a number of attorneys who have various specialties relating to government law. The Frazer Brandt firm has a good reputation and represents many of the cities in Pinellas County. When Yacavone encounters a subject he's not familiar with, he can consult his colleagues. If he is sick or on vacation, one of them substitutes for him in Tarpon Springs.
If the city chose to use in-house representation, it would have to pay a competitive salary to its new attorney; cover the salaries of one or two legal assistants to handle documents, record-keeping and detailed legal tasks; pay city benefits to all three; provide office space, computers and furnishings in already overcrowded City Hall; and purchase the high-priced books, computer software and subscriptions attorneys must have to do their job.
With just one in-house attorney, the city likely would spend more money to hire outside counsel for matters in which the in-house attorney lacked experience. The city also would have to make provision for backup representation when the in-house attorney was sick or on vacation or had too many cases or an especially big one.
A good attorney will keep the city from legal blunders, work to limit the scope of cases and win in court. A bad attorney, or one who simply is not schooled enough in complex municipal law, will cost the city in the end.
"Most people, when they look for legal advice, try to get the most competent legal advice they can afford," Mayor David Archie pointed out.
Though declining revenues have Tarpon officials looking for ways to reduce the city budget, they shouldn't pinch pennies on legal representation.