The Huntington Beach City Council voted Monday to look into outsourcing the city's legal services.
Supporters called the proposal a potential cost-saving measure while critics argued that it would lead to financial and legal woes.
The council voted 5 to 2 in favor of the review process, which is expected to examine whether outsourcing legal services will save money.
Mayor Don Hansen, who placed the item on the agenda, cited the budget, not ideology, as the only reason for the analysis.
"We're trying to manage budget shortfalls, balance staffing levels, provide for public safety, maintain our infrastructure," he said. "All that takes money."
The city attorney's budget is about $2.3 million — less than 1.5% of the general budget, said City Attorney Jennifer McGrath.
Outsourcing could mean laying off the office entire staff — except for McGrath, who is elected — and replacing the city employees with outside counsel. Many Orange County cities outsource their legal departments to private firms.
McGrath said her staff members have been feeling "horrible" about the outsourcing proposal, and all 10 attended Monday's council meeting.
Assistant City Attorney Scott Field spoke before the council, urging it not to outsource his and his colleagues' jobs.
"Reject this item," he said.
"I would find it hard to believe that an office full of attorneys would sit by and let the city outsource them without a fight," Councilwoman Connie Boardman said.
Boardman questioned the legality of outsourcing and pointed to the troubles Costa Mesa has been having with its outsourcing endeavors. That city has issued pink slips to some 200 employees and is reviewing whether it can replace them with outside contractors; in turn, the employees are suing in hopes of keeping their jobs.
The discussion leading up to the vote was tense, and at one point, Hansen criticized Councilman Joe Shaw.
"The disrespect that you consistently show your colleagues ... is flabbergasting," Hansen said.
Shaw had questioned the council majority's motives behind efforts to outsource McGrath's office, reminding them of previous failed attempts to change the office's current model and of a recent audit that gave the attorney's office favorable marks.
"We're going to embroil ourselves into Costa Mesa-style tactics that are losing in courts, and we're going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars doing it, and we're going to fight a losing battle for something that's less than 1% of our budget," Shaw said. "This is the exact opposite of fiscal responsibility, the exact opposite of being fiscally conservative.
"To say that this is a budget measure and you're doing it because it's a budget issue is both misleading and hypocritical."
Last year's audit was supposed to be the first of many to identify potential savings and opportunities for greater efficiency in city departments. The city paid a consultant, Management Partners Inc., about $25,000 to audit the attorney's office, McGrath said.
The audit found that the office, which had cut its budget by 22% over the last five years, is a "lean operation" when compared with attorney's offices in cities like Santa Ana, Anaheim, San Bernardino and others.
"I feel confident that this process will reaffirm the findings of the performance audit from 2011," McGrath said.
The audit, however, found some shortfalls, including the fact that some employees had not received annual performance evaluations in as long as a decade.
McGrath said performance evaluations have not been a priority, considering the amount of workload coupled with the fact that when she was elected, she became the boss to employees who once supervised her.
She said in a follow-up interview that she has been working on those recommendations and addressing the shortfalls, including providing performance evaluations.