Wellington will hire an assistant village attorney to help keep up with the day-to-day requirements of the village’s legal work. Members of the Wellington Village Council voted to create the position last Thursday.
During manager’s comments at the end of the meeting, which had been continued from the previous Tuesday night, Village Manager Paul Schofield said he had reviewed the legal services department and felt there was a need for an assistant attorney.
“The daily workload is such that research and special project needs are not being met,” he said. “It’s my recommendation that [the] council authorize the addition of an assistant attorney.”
Mayor Bob Margolis agreed. “I think it’s a great idea,” he said, because Village Attorney Laurie Cohen is still “playing catch-up.”
Cohen said it’s a level of service issue. “I have time to get to the day-to-day stuff, and the things that are on fire, but what I don’t have time to do is get to the projects that need to be done,” she said.
Cohen said she wants her office to be proactive rather than reactive.
“I think an assistant attorney would be able to fill that gap and give you the level of service you want to have,” she said. “I think we will be able to offer a more proactive review of things rather than reacting to things as they come up.”
Vice Mayor Howard Coates said he was concerned about building a large legal department. “But on the other hand, I understand how much work is required in the position,” he said.
He asked Cohen whether she thought the pressure would be alleviated once several lawsuits involving the village are settled.
“Do you anticipate this assistant will be utilized for the foreseeable future?” he asked. “What I don’t want to see is that we settle these lawsuits and then have an assistant attorney on the payroll with nothing to do.”
Cohen pointed out that the litigation is being handled primarily by contracted attorney Claudio Riedi.
“Almost everything flows through the legal department,” she said. “It requires a lot of time, putting aside the things you want to get to so that you can do the things that need to be done on a day-to-day basis.”
Cohen said that her department is tasked with solving many diverse issues every day.
“It eliminates the time you have to sit down and focus, to do legal research and draft opinions,” she said. “I don’t see that [problem] going away. We’re a pretty large village. One attorney is not going to give you the kind of service and responses you want and deserve.”
Councilman Matt Willhite noted that West Palm Beach — the largest municipality in the county — has seven attorneys on staff, while Boca Raton has five.
“We are the fifth largest, and we have one,” he said. “I don’t think this need is going to go away. I think it will just continue to grow.”
Willhite pointed out that Wellington has issues that need to be addressed stemming back several years.
“There are a lot of things we need to play catch-up on and fix,” he said. “I think there is enough work for two assistant attorneys, but I’m happy to support one.”
Willhite said it was clear Cohen was trying to do as much of the work as possible.
“She’s trying as hard as she can, and she can’t keep up,” he said. “People will recognize she’s overwhelmed. I don’t hear her asking for help, I trust she’s trying to do the best she can.”
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig asked whether the extra position would help save Wellington money on legal costs incurred because of the lawsuits. “We have already spent $450,000,” she said.
Coates said although it would not reduce those costs directly, it would reduce other costs. “It would lessen our need to send things out-of-house.”
Willhite added that Wellington would be able to stay on top of problems, meaning fewer issues in the future.
“If we bring things up-to-date, we will have less problems, which will save us money,” Willhite said.
Coates made a motion to approve hiring an assistant attorney, which passed unanimously.
Council members asked whether there would be a request for proposals sent out, but Schofield noted that employee hiring is a management decision and would not go before the council.
Cohen agreed. “The charter requires that you approve hiring an assistant, but not do the actual hiring,” she said.
ABOVE: Wellington Village Attorney Laurie Cohen.