The Wellington Village Council decided Wednesday to hire a consulting firm to help determine whether Wellington should hire in-house legal counsel or stay with a contracted law firm.
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig was the lone dissenter in a 4-1 vote to hire a consultant to analyze the costs and benefits of each option.
Councilman Matt Willhite said he feels that Wellington has grown large enough to necessitate an in-house legal counsel. “Our charter says that we have two direct employees, the manager and the attorney,” he said. “The village has grown to a point where I believe that we should hire an attorney that specifically works for the village.”
He suggested creating a legal services department. “I think that we should hire a lead attorney who will potentially have a staff,” Willhite said.
Wellington is budgeted to pay $460,000 to Village Attorney Jeff Kurtz, who is contracted through the law firm of Glen J. Torcivia & Associates. He has served as Wellington’s attorney for nine years.
“I’ve worked in both systems in my career,” Kurtz said. “There is no right or wrong way. I serve at the pleasure of this council, and I hope to continue to serve in that capacity. But, ultimately, you as a council have to be satisfied.”
Vice Mayor Howard Coates worried that a legal department could mean a bigger budget. “I’m not opposed to the concept of having our village attorney being an employee,” he said. “But I am opposed to the legal department bureaucracy that will guarantee us a legal services budget of more than $1 million.”
He pointed to Lake Worth, which has an in-house legal department that costs the city $1.4 million. Boca Raton pays $1.7 million for its legal budget. “The reason these numbers give me cause for concern is that when you look at the contracted versus in-house costs, the numbers are radically different,” said Coates, an attorney.
Margolis echoed those concerns. “I am not in favor of forming our own legal services department,” he said. “We pay our village attorney $400,000 a year. Are we going to do better? I don’t know.”
Coates was also concerned that getting one attorney who can serve all the village’s needs would prove difficult. “The law firm provides us with litigation experience, employment, real estate and more,” he said. “To get that depth with in-house staff, we would need three attorneys.”
Gerwig agreed. “I think we should stick with contracting legal firms that specialize in municipalities,” she said.
Coates also pointed out that with several pending lawsuits, changing attorneys could be problematic. “We have to be very careful changing the horse in the middle of the race,” he said.
But Councilman John Greene said he didn’t see harm in analyzing their options. “I think the prudent thing would be to put it out there and make an informed decision,” he said. “At that point, we may find it’s not financially in our best interest.”
Margolis agreed. “I think we owe it to the residents to see what else is out there,” he said. “I’ve always believed a municipality our size needs to have an in-house counsel. I think the time is right to do it now.”
Rather than putting the burden on staff to evaluate the matter, Willhite suggested hiring a consulting company to evaluate information and make a recommendation to council.
Gerwig said that it would just be doing studies on top of studies. “To me it seems like we don’t want to have the responsibility of this choice,” she said.
But Margolis disagreed, pointing out that Wellington used a similar method to decide whether it should have its own police force.
Willhite made a motion to draft a request for a consultant. The motion carried 4-1 with Gerwig opposed.
“I don’t see any harm in exploring what our options are,” Greene said. “For me, this is not about making a change. It may be complete validation that the system we have in place is the best system. I just think we have a financial obligation to the tax payers to look at what our options are.”