Morgantown Council adopts budget, votes down amendment to keep attorney in-house

MORGANTOWN — Morgantown City Council voted 6-1 to adopt its $37.3 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year on Tuesday.

Councilor Ryan Wallace voted in the minority after proposing an amendment that would have stated council’s disapproval of an administrative change by City Manager Paul Brake to eliminate the city attorney’s office, opting instead for a private agreement with a local law firm.

As the change came to council as part of the budget discussion, Wallace said voting in favor of the budget was akin to “rubber stamping a policy change if we just approve these numbers.”

As part of his amendment, Wallace asked that the amount budgeted for the attorney’s office in the current fiscal year, $387,678. be carried over into the upcoming budget with the addition of a 2.5 percent increase. The upcoming budget includes $460,000 under the city attorney heading.

Wallace’s amendment failed on a 4-3 vote, with councilors Ron Dulaney and Mark Brazaitis voting to support his proposal.

Wallace said the city already has retainer agreements with outside counsel in addition to an in-house attorney.

It was previously explained that through this new arrangement, Ryan Simonton would still act as the city’s general counsel, but would no longer work out of city hall.

“I think the reason people have concerns is we have not made a compelling case for proceeding with this policy change. What is the reason for proceeding and why would we knowingly avail ourselves to spending more money on legal services when we’re going to be receiving pretty much the same legal services,” Wallace asked. “We will only be paying more for the city attorney when we make him a retained, contract counsel.”

Brake previously said contracting with a private firm would be cheaper and more efficient than hiring a second attorney, and would give the city access to a wider range of legal expertise.

“The current system is broken. You ask me to make recommendations, there’s hard choices,” Brake said, later adding, “I work with the city attorney every day. I understand fully what the needs are of the department.”

Brake went on to say that the city’s current retainer agreements don’t set the city apart as a priority client. Under this proposed setup, the city would be Simonton’s primary client, but he would have access to additional counsel as the city’s demands warranted.

In his remarks, Brazaitis said he would feel more comfortable supporting the move if there was a stated date for review a year or so after implementation.

Both Brake and council were in agreement.

“Should things go awry, it’s reversible. This is not something we have to live with forever,” Mayor Bill Kawecki said.

The retainer agreement will cover four primary areas — municipal law, regulatory law, contract law and human resources.

Brake previously said prosecutorial work will continue to be contracted out separately. Additionally, specialized services like bond counsel will not be covered under the agreement.

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