Laurie Cohen was hired this week as Wellington’s new village attorney after council members called a special meeting Monday to discuss the matter.
However, discussions got heated when some council members questioned whether procedure had been followed in ceasing negotiations with Wellington’s first choice for legal representation.
Deputy Village Manager John Bonde explained that the contract approved by Cohen included a $165,000 starting salary with a $10,000 increase plus standard raise at the end of a year. She also asked for 160 hours of paid time off pre-loaded.
Vice Mayor Howard Coates pointed out that during interviews, Cohen had suggested a starting salary of $150,000, which council members ultimately offered her.
The special meeting was called at the request of Councilman John Greene, who felt that council members hadn’t followed proper procedures last week when they opted to reject a counter-offer made by attorney Donald Dufresne, who had been the council’s first choice.
Though Greene had to leave the April 15 meeting early, council members decided to counter offer Dufresne’s contract by phone during a recess of the meeting. When Dufresne did not accept the counter offer and did not ask for further negotiations, they voted 3-1 to negotiate with Cohen instead.
Village Manager Paul Schofield said that he believed there was some confusion later about whether it was made clear that negotiations would not continue with Dufresne.
“There was confusion as to whether the last conversation with Mr. Dufresne was final,” he said, noting that Dufresne had later submitted another counter offer. “One of the concerns was at the time we adjourned, it was not clear if there would be continued negotiations.”
Greene said he did not believe the council had exhausted every opportunity to come to an agreement. “I think we should have had that discussion with him,” he said.
Greene said he was surprised at what had happened. “I was taken completely aback,” he said. “I came into that meeting expecting to be presented with a contract that was acceptable to [both parties]. I thought we would be reviewing and discussing the approval of that contract.”
Greene noted he had been on a strict time limit, and had offered to reconvene at a later time for further discussion. “I believe that with a discussion as important as this… each and every one of us should be a part of the process,” he said. “I feel I was not given that opportunity.”
He also felt that the council had put Dufresne on the spot.
“I think it’s unfair to Mr. Dufresne that he felt negotiations were complete and there was an agreement, then he gets pulled out of a meeting and put on the spot to make a decision,” Greene said. “I think the professional way to do it would have been to make a formal offer in writing.”
Mayor Bob Margolis said he had reviewed the tapes and felt it was clear that negotiations were final. “He didn’t say ‘can I get back to you?’” Margolis pointed out. “Is staff comfortable that negotiations ended at that time?”
Schofield said he believed so.
“That was my impression at that time,” he said. “But later, after my conversation with [Dufresne] and some council members, my understanding is it was not clear to at least a couple of people.”
Coates also felt negotiations had ended. “When the contract was presented to us, it was presented as the culmination of 10 iterations of negotiations, and that it was a final offer,” he said. “It was in that context that we countered and… he rejected the offer.”
Coates asked if there was any statement made by Dufresne that he wanted to continue negotiating, and Schofield said there was not at the time.
“Later that day, I did get a call back,” Schofield added.
But Coates said it sounded like Dufresne changed his mind.
“Cutting to the chase, it sounds like there was a change of heart later in the day,” he said. “Unfortunately, we had moved on to the next applicant. When you reject an offer and don’t counter offer, that’s the end of the day. You can’t continue negotiations unless the other side comes back with a counter, and I never heard any indication that there was desire to continue negotiations on the other side.”
But Greene stressed that was a decision he should have been a part of. “I feel excluded from that,” he said. “I want equal consideration. I am one of the five members of this council.”
Though council members largely agreed he should have been part of the decision, they noted that they have been under a time crunch to hire an attorney.
“I don’t want you to feel discounted,” Gerwig said. “I know how that feels. But the pressure to fill this position has been brought on by all of us. We need an attorney.”
Greene said it shouldn’t be about finding the lowest price, but the best value.
“If all we’re looking for is the lowest price we can get, in two weeks there will be a slew of law students graduating from law school, and they can take the job for $50,000 a year,” he said. “If all we’re concerned with is writing the smallest check each month, let’s not worry about value, experience or solving problems for the village. Let’s go find some kid who wants to move out of mom and dad’s house, and we’ll hire him tomorrow.”
Greene asked how the council could go about reconsidering Dufresne’s offer. Interim attorney Glen Torcivia noted that if none of the three council members who voted to reject Dufresne’s offer would reconsider, Greene could motion to reject Cohen’s contract and start over.
Greene made such a motion, which was seconded by Willhite, but it failed 3-2.
Council members then moved on to discuss Cohen’s proposed contract.
Greene said he felt that Cohen had changed her salary proposal after seeing what Wellington offered Dufresne.
“It’s obvious after the public discussion [about the contract] that someone has a tremendous advantage in negotiating,” he said. “Laurie Cohen sat in this chair and said she’d be happy to take a job at $150,000, but now hears numbers being thrown around and all of a sudden she is at $165,000.”
Greene then left the meeting.
“My vote doesn’t really matter, I guess,” he said shortly before leaving. “You guys have a quorum.”
Council members agreed that they felt the salary was too high, given Cohen’s initial offer during the interview process.
“That’s what led me to put her at the top of my list,” Coates said. “I don’t think we should say ‘can we give you more?’ I think we should counter offer.”
He was also concerned about the automatic pay increase. “I’m not in favor of a pay increase of $10,000 by way of contract,” Coates said. “I think it’s something the council can consider at the end of the first year. If we’re not happy with her performance, I don’t want an automatic increase.”
Margolis agreed. “If you take the starting salary and the pay increase, that is a $25,000 difference,” he said. “I think we need to go back and offer her [a lower salary.]”
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig, who led negotiations, said the increase would come with an evaluation.
But Coates said he didn’t want to be obligated by the contract to give a raise upon evaluation. “I think we should take that out,” he said.
After a bit more discussion about benefits, Coates made a motion to have staff submit a counter offer of $150,000 without the automatic increase. Gerwig seconded, and the motion passed 3-1 with Willhite opposed and Greene absent.
Council members opted to recess the meeting and reconvene Tuesday to hear Cohen’s decision. She accepted the offer and will take over as village attorney at the next council meeting.
ABOVE: Laurie Cohen