|North Adams Committee Reviewing Mechanism for Legal Opinions|
|By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff |
02:19AM / Tuesday, October 22, 2019
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council has a right to counsel — but the General Government Committee is weighing how much is enough.
The council had objected last year
when the city switched over to KP Law as city solicitor, limiting council members' access to the Boston law firm. The council members had been used to contacting former City Solicitor John B. DeRosa, who'd been kept on retainer for 35 years before stepping down in March 2018.
Instead, the council had been limited to requesting opinions through the administration, which often provided answers based on state law but not on a legal opinion from the solicitor. Councilors were particularly irate last year that the administrative officer, who does not have a legal degree, should determine whether a query required an attorney's response.
They had pointed to the city's ordinances that state the solicitor "shall also appear as counsel" to governmental bodies or departments when requested by the City Council.
"The City Solicitor shall, whenever so required by the mayor, the City Council or any officer of the City government who may need the same in the discharge of official duty, furnish them or any of them with his legal opinion, upon any subject touching the duties of their respective offices," the ordinance reads.
With the administration pointing to the costs of such open access, the council approved a $5,000 budget in the fiscal 2020 budget to cover its legal queries.
The mechanism for making those queries was the focus of the General Government Committee on Monday. Chairman Paul Hopkins said he had reached out to Pittsfield Councilor at Large Peter White to see how that body functioned regarding the solicitor.
"So there was a perception during this term, initially, that individuals with significant training, but nonetheless without a law degree, were making the decision as to what constituted a question requiring a legal opinion, and therefore hindering — or the perceived hindering — of access to the solicitor," said member Jason LaForest, then referring to White's note to Hopkins, "I suppose that what we should do is just write into our home rules that the councilors may solicit an opinion from legal counsel, but that they should be diligent in doing that and mindful of the costs."
Committee member Joshua Moran, however, thought any referral to the solicitor should run through a selected individual, either the president of the City Council or a committee chairman. He didn't think the current councilors would be running to the phone for an opinion but he was concerned about future councilors using access to the solicitor as a way to defy a future administration or to run up a bill the city would have to pay.
"I just don't want someone receiving a paper on Thursday or Friday morning calling up the solicitor and being like this is an agenda item and I want to know about it in like two, three hours later," he said. "All of a sudden these bills are adding up."
Rather, he said, the council president, in consultation with the council, or a committee chairman with the backing of the committee could first seek feedback and then request an opinion if not satisfied with the administration's answer.
"I just don't want to see someone that disagrees with what the administration says constantly peppering them to try more and more and more to get an answer that they're not satisfied with," Moran said. Plus, he said, there had not been many times the council had sought a legal opinion on its work.
LaForest agreed it was a serious concern and that he also would prefer some sort of check on the access to the solicitor, as long as that limitation was within the council's purview. But, he noted, the language implies that the solicitor can be contacted individually so he wondered if it would require a council or home rule to amend that to "in consultation" with the council president.
The General Government Committee also agreed the $5,000 in funds would disappear quickly if the solicitor was continually contacted.
"I'm a big fan of having some level of checks and balances whenever tapping into financial resources of the council or city," said Councilor Benjamin Lamb, who attended the meeting. "So I think going through the president or through the chair are both valid approaches."
His preference was for a council rule, rather than an ordinance, because the solicitor may shift over time. Committee members also agreed with Hopkins that clarity was important, and considered that any request would go to the city clerk and be made out on a form that would specify the matter an opinion was being sought on. Moran said this would also be a way to track how often and what issues are being referred.
Lamb said any request should also be referred to the council president and to the mayor's office to ensure it isn't redundant.
"If I wanted it from the Community Development Committee, and I'm the chair of that committee, I shouldn't be approving my own request," he said. "I should be getting it through the [president] of the Council."
The committee agreed to drafting a form for requesting a legal opinion at its next meeting before making any recommendations to the full City Council.