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Another shot across the bow of Newport’s City Attorney contracting firm

Newport City Council Legal Angst

Newport City Council
Legal Angst

The Newport City Council Thursday again expressed displeasure with the level of the service being provided by their contract city attorney firm, Speer Hoyt of Eugene. The council appeared especially displeased with the fact that their request for an attorney-written summary of a recent personnel investigation has not been provided despite a clear desire that they wanted it as soon as possible.

City Councilor David Allen remarked that they had told their Speer Hoyt staff attorney, Christy Monson, at their their last face-to-face meeting, that they wanted a summary of the investigation released to them, and to the news media. He said the summary should reveal the general findings of the investigation as well as whether any behavior by any city councilor was deemed inappropriate. The council, including those whose names are mentioned in the investigation, said they all want the summary approved as soon as possible.

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Allen said that summary is still not on their desks and they’ve just learned that Monson recently embarked on a long vacation trip to Europe and that nothing will be forthcoming until after she returns to the United States. Hawker added that when she called Speer Hoyt to ask about the summary she was told that Monson ordered that no one but her review the summary despite the fact that the firm has other attorneys currently working on other Newport city issues, who could just as easily do it.

Allen earlier levied a pointed criticism at Hoyt Speer and Monson when he said it was learned that Monson had instructed city administration to simply pay the firm’s invoices for legal work performed without showing them to the city council. Interim City Manager Ted Smith revealed that Monson expressed concern that the invoices would be “leaked” to the news media. That sparked a quick rebuff from the council, and especially from Councilor Allen who said that such documents are presumed, under state law, to be public records, open to the council and to the public. He said if there is any confidential information included in any invoice, that information can be redacted (blacked out) with a magic marker as is typical with any other public document that might contain confidential information.

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In the meantime, City Clerk Recorder Peggy Hawker has made copies of those invoices available to the news media without any redactions. She said there was no confidential information on any of them.

Allen said that the quality of legal advice given to the council by Speer Hoyt has generally been high quality in other areas, but that these two recent incidents have called into question the general relationship between the city and the firm.

The council directed City Clerk Recorder Peggy Hawker to send a letter to Speer Hoyt expressing their displeasure with the incidents along with a request for a timely response.

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Up until a couple of years ago, the city had its own in-house city attorney who tended to the day to day legal needs of the city. But a suggestion was made by then-Mayor Mark McConnell and others, that it might save the city money to simply contract with a multidisciplinary law firm to provide not only routine services but also specialized services dealing with human resources, land use and other specialty areas in municipal law. Over the last two years there has been some debate on whether this approach has saved the city any real money and has rekindled informal discussions as to whether the city’s legal needs exceed the level provided by an out of town law firm – especially when city councilors generally cannot pick up the phone to talk with them without first getting permission from the mayor or city manager – all in the interest of keeping legal costs as low as possible. Cities and counties with in-house attorneys generally offer convenient access to legal and other information to elected as well as supervisory employees which is critical to the performance of their elected and employment duties.

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