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Newport City Council balks at giving City Manager Jim Voetberg authority to settle lawsuits against the city as recommended by city attorney

Newport City Council vs. City Manager
Who settles lawsuits?

Jim Voetberg
Newport City Manager

Newport city councilors Tuesday night balked at following the advice of their city attorney Christy Monson that they leave it up to the city manager on how best to settle state and federal lawsuits. Monson moderated her advice by saying that the city manager should keep the council in the information loop and confer with councilors before making his or her decision.

City Councilor David Allen, a practicing attorney in Newport, said he disagreed with Monson’s conclusion saying “It’s just her opinion. It’s not based on references to case law. And because it’s just her advice, she should be invited to come to Newport and engage the full council on the matter. Monson is based in Eugene, part of a large law firm that specializes in government operations.

Councilor Ralph Busby took it a step further calling Monson’s memo to the council an insult, insinuating that the council could not be trusted. He said he disagreed with Monson’s references to conflicts of interest and of her contention that the city manager has the power to commit city funds without the sanction of the city council. Busby said “I want this out in the open. I think the city council has an important role to play in matters of city personnel and lawsuit settlement issues. None of it should be done without council oversight. I watched how the Dennis Reno case went and I didn’t like the way it was handled.”

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Councilor Dean Sawyer chimed in saying he’s never been comfortable with the fact that only the mayor and city manager have direct access to the city attorney. Sawyer says he knows the access arrangement was created to prevent individual councilors from inadvertently running up the monthly bill but he’s often left in the dark about what legal work is being done and what it costs. He said “Sometimes I don’t have a clue.”

The council agreed that when it comes to lawsuits, the city’s insurance carrier, and their attorneys do a good job of protecting the city. The council said they want Monson to meet with them and discuss the issue. They also want to talk with their insurance carrier, City and County Insurance Services, which represents the lion’s share of cities and counties in Oregon. They said they don’t want a debate between the two; they want to meet with them individually, gathering their thoughts and positions and then come to their own conclusions, as a council, on how to proceed on the issue of city manager discretion when it comes to lawsuits against the city.

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Newport used to have a full time city attorney but the council decided two years ago that the city could save money by hiring an “as needed” contract attorney to provide the council legal advice. A recent report to the council indicated that although the contract arrangement was saving the city money, it was not nearly as much as was projected.

For a long time, Lincoln City has had a near full time city attorney, with contract lawyer Joan Kelsey attending both planning commission and city council sessions. Kelsey was always involved with city council deliberations on important issues. She frequently provided various procedural and legal options as the council moved toward strategically important decisions. When Kelsey recently announced she was leaving the council to spend more time with her family, the council decided they needed to maintain a full time legal presence during council and other important city meetings. So they recently hired an attorney who is now a full time city employee.

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