News

Search for new Langley city attorney to take months

Langley expects to launch a competitive search for a city attorney later this month, but inking a final deal may take more than two months, according to city officials.

City leaders stepped back earlier this month from a proposed automatic extension to the existing contract with the city’s current legal counsel — the Snohomish-based law firm of Weed, Graafstra & Benson, Inc. — after questions arose over the firm’s mishandling of ordinances sent to them for review.

At the council meeting Dec. 5, a new contract for Weed, Graafstra & Benson, Inc. was abruptly pulled from the agenda following a Record story that recounted how lawyers at the firm failed to review at least 15 ordinances that were sent to the council for approval.

Though the Langley Municipal Code requires that ordinances be reviewed by the city attorney before the council takes a final vote on the legislation, public records show that didn’t happen for an extended period of time in 2008-2009.

City Attorney Grant Weed later approved the missed ordinances all at once when the oversight was discovered, according to city billing records, and council members contacted by the Record said they were never notified of the problem.

Weed has refused to comment on the firm’s past performance as Langley’s legal counsel.

In an email sent to the Record Friday, Weed said the recent news stories were “patently false, misleading and defamatory.” He did not elaborate.

Larry Kwarsick, who will take over as mayor in January, said the city council will be asked at its Dec. 19 meeting to approve a “request for proposals” that would help the city find potential firms that could provide Langley with legal advice.

Langley would begin its search for a city attorney on Dec. 20, if the process set out by Kwarsick is approved by the council, and lawyers would have until Jan. 13 to submit proposals to the city.

Candidates would be interviewed Jan. 25 and Jan. 27, and the council would vote on the new hire on Feb. 6. The expected start date for the city attorney would be no later than March 1.

Kwarsick said the start date wouldn’t pose a problem.

The council’s non-renewal of the contract with Weed means there is still 60 days of continuance, since the city must give two months’ notice when ending the agreement.

“We’ll be covered during this solicitation and decision-making process,” Kwarsick said.

The need for attorney help may not be critical in the short-term, Kwarsick added.

“We don’t need legal advice all the time. It’s not every day that we need assistance,” he said. “If necessary, we can contract with an attorney to provide short-term legal advice.”

The new contract is expected to be a three-year deal, with no automatic renewal. An extension or reauthorization of the agreement would also require the approval of the city council.

It’s not known if Weed, Graafstra & Benson, Inc. will submit a proposal to be considered for the new contract.

Even so, Kwarsick said late last week he was planning to talk to Weed, regardless if Weed planned to participate in the city’s search for attorney services, just like he would want to talk to anyone who retired, resigned or is terminated.

“It’s good business to talk to those people and have some kind of exit interview,” Kwarsick said.

Weed’s law firm has been the subject of much criticism in recent years, mostly following the company’s handling of the controversy over the mayor’s salary, which resulted in multiple rewrites of the ordinance that covered the mayor’s compensation package and eventually inspired a citizen-led petition drive that forced an election calling for a change in Langley’s government that would abolish the elected mayor’s position. That proposal fell to defeat in the August primary.

The work of Weed, Graafstra & Benson was also blasted during the city’s review of Langley Passage, which found the city on the blunt end of lawsuit threats after the developer of the 20-home project said the city had allowed too many appeals on the new subdivision.

Discordant voices inside and outside city hall have also sounded on the over-budget legal fees assessed by Weed, Graafstra & Benson, as well as the firm’s handling of public records requests.

Council members have raised questions at times about their access to the city attorney, and have noted Weed’s lack of attendance at council meetings. Weed has attended only a handful of council meetings since he was made city attorney in March 2008.

In the city’s request for proposals, Langley notes that the city attorney will be required to attend a variety of meetings, including council meetings and staff sessions. The legal firm will be represented “at all city council business meetings,” according to the scope of work, which also states the council will have access to the attorney’s legal services.

“Timeliness of response and accessibility to the city attorney is an important aspect of the service. Accessibility and responsiveness for the proposed designated city attorney is of greatest importance … accessibility includes the ability to be generally available to attend meetings in person on short notice and the ability to be reached promptly by telephone,” the information packet states.

Law firms responding to the request must provide a business history, a detailed narrative of the company’s experience, résumés for the legal team, information on accessibility and responsiveness, a proposed fee structure and three references that include municipal government experience.

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