"Dearborn, others react to two judges' criticism"
June 25, 2008 · Updated 11:26 AM
"A decision by the county's two Superior Court judges last week to end a contract with outside attorney Keith Dearborn is causing ripples in the county's planning process and prompting both defenders and detractors of Dearborn to speak up.Some say that Dearborn's work, in spearheading completion of a county Comprehensive Plan, has been exceptional and well worth the more than $722,000 he and his firm have been paid. Others, however, say the judges' move was long overdue and a good indicator that the county's planning effort is flawed. Dearborn himself says the judges' public criticism of his billing practices was personally hurtful and came as a complete surprise.I can't tell you how much this distresses me, Dearborn said this week from his Seattle office. There was no opportunity on my part to address the issues. In a regularly-scheduled staff meeting with the county commissioners Feb. 9, Superior Court Judges Vickie Churchill and Alan Hancock said they were astonished at how much money the commissioners had already paid Dearborn and his firm, Dearborn and Moss. The judges had only approved contracts of $235,000 since February of 1998 for Dearborn and his law partner and wife Alison Moss. During the same time they also approved a separate contract with outside attorney Elaine Spencer for $15,000 for her work on the Comprehensive Plan. Each contract had dollar limits but permitted the commissioners to amend the dollar amount as needed. In the end the commissioners approved a cost overrun of about $663 for Spencer and tripled to contract base amounts for Dearborn and Moss. Faced with a request for another year-long, $200,000 contract for Dearborn's services, the judges said they would no longer condone the expense.We approved them (previous contracts) with the understanding that the commissioners would engage in appropriate cost containment, Hancock said Thursday, further explaining why he and Churchill rejected a new contract. After seeing a list of itemized bills totalling $722,700.32, he said the judges concluded the cost containment they were looking for was not being done.By law, the presiding judge in the county must approve all county contracts with outside attorneys. Last week's decision came only two days before Dearborn's contract expired, leaving the commissioners with little they could do but tell Dearborn to go home and wait for them to figure something out.Dearborn and Moss have become synonymous with Island County's Comprehensive Plan. Dearborn has been intimately involved at all levels from public hearings to courtroom debate. His departure has already caused delays in the county's Comprehensive Plan process. Commissioner meetings on the key planning subjects of rural density and critical area regulations had to be postponed until mid March. Public hearings on cellular towers and signs and lighting have also been pushed back.This week, the Island County commissioners defended the hiring of Dearborn and the use of county budget reserves to pay him. Commission Chairman Mac McDowell said Monday that the board will likely have a new contract before them on Feb. 28 that will bring Dearborn back as a planning consultant rather than as an attorney.McDowell said the commissioners did follow Dearborn's expenses closely.He didn't do much we didn't know about, McDowell said. We certainly knew what he was billing each month because we signed off on them each month.But Churchill said that if the commissioners were carefully scrutinizing the bills, it wasn't evident to her and Hancock. She pointed to times when Dearborn and Moss combined had billed for more hours than there were in a day.Mr. Dearborn may be an excellent attorney but with any attorney you question the bill, she said Thursday.Dearborn responds to judges' concernsDearborn had some questions of his own this week. For one thing, he wondered why the judges didn't ask him for clarification on his bills before taking the matter to the public. He said he has high regard for both judges and a long working history with Hancock that he thought at least earned a phone call on the matter.I should have had the opportunity to answer, he said. In partial response to some of the judges' allegations, Dearborn said he believed all his billing was fair and justified.I think the commissioners will tell you that I have been trying to avoid more work, said Dearborn. He said a good attorney should be ethical and please the client. I believe I've been both those things. Dearborn said he would be asking the commissioners for a public declaration that he has done nothing wrong.McDowell said he questions the judges' underlying motivations for making their announcement at an open staff meeting where a reporter was in attendance.But Hancock said there was nothing mysterious about the timing of their decision. The newest Dearborn contract was sent to them in mid-January. The judges then sent a list of questions regarding the contract to the commissioners Jan. 21. The commissioners responded on Jan. 28, and provided the judges with itemized bills from Dearborn and Dearborn and Moss.Hancock said commissioner Mike Shelton actually asked for a meeting and the Feb. 9 staff session worked with everyone's schedule. Hancock said it was the right way to do it.This is a public process, he said. Churchill added that Dearborn was not consulted because it was not necessary.This is not between Mr. Dearborn and us. We are taking this to the commissioners.Churchill said she and Hancock stand by their belief that the county's own staff attorneys can wrap up the planning process in place of Dearborn.They are capable, she said. What is left here except some legal work?"