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May 27, 2008 - 8:55pm

Batavia City Council debates role of City Attorney at conference meetings

posted by Howard B. Owens in city council, city attorney.

Tonight's Batavia City Council meeting ended on a testy note with a majority of the council agreeing to keep the status quo with City Attorney George Van Nest's conference meeting attendance and to drop the issue until next budget season.

Council members Bill Cox, Bob Bialkowski and Sam Barone dissented.

Cox and Bialkowski had brought the matter before the council -- and from the chatter during the meeting, apparently for the umpteenth time.

"We have in this particular case," Cox said in leading off the discussion, "some discretionary ability to cut costs in this one small area."

Barone later said that the city spends $209,000 on legal fees, but Van Nest and Council President Charlie Mallow later noted that not all of those fees go to Van Nest's firm.  There is also expense, for example, for labor attorneys.

Van Nest's fees for attending the meetings amounts to about $1,600 per meeting per year, according to Mallow. 

Mallow said it was his decision to have Van Nest at the meetings, and that he and City Manager Jason Molino discuss every item on every agenda and decide whether Van Nest's attendance is warranted.  He characterized having VanNest at the meeting as responsible leadership, and suggested that the council trust his judgment on whether to have the attorney present.

Later he said: "As long as I’m council president, I’m not going to conduct a meeting without an attorney."

Councilman Frank Ferrando said the council should drop the subject for now.  The appropriate time to address the issue is during budget discussions, which won't start until September, he said.

"I get tired of talking about these things five or six times over again," Ferrando said. "I’m not interested in talking about budget revisions at this time. We’ve got lots of other fish to fry."

Cox countered that no issue should ever be closed for discussion, that in order for council members to be responsive to constituents, they should be able to raise any issue even if it has been addressed before.

"I don’t feel it’s proper for council people to be criticized for bringing up issues at a meeting," Cox said.

Molino appeared agitated, if not angry, near the close of the discussion, calling the "belaboring" of the topic a distraction for the city.

"I'm very sorry that this has created a very negative work environment, which none of you witness," Molino said. "Can we move on? I’m sorry to be so blunt, but I’m really sick and tired of this." (UPDATE: WBTA's audio.)

Once the issue was closed, the meeting adjourned and the council chambers emptied quickly.

So here's the lingering question: Why does the city pay a fee for its city attorney to attend its routine meetings?  Shouldn't that just be covered under a flat-fee contract?  Shouldn't the only extra cost incurred be only for work above and beyond routine?

Charlie Mallow
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Joined: Apr 28 2008 - 9:05pm
The attorney is paid by the hour, it is less expensive. It also costs $1,600 a Year, not per meeting. The $209,000 in fees are for ALL legal fees. Our attorney makes a less than a quarter of that amount.
Howard B. Owens
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Joined: Apr 23 2008 - 3:05pm
Thanks for the clarification. I'll correct the post.

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