City attorney warns against outsourcing her office

City Atty. Jennifer McGrath said the City Council has no authority to outsource her office, and even if it could, contracting with outside counsel would end up costing the city at least $1 million more each year.

McGrath issued an analysis and an opinion last week after the city compiled a list of firms that offered to take on the city attorney's office work. She also urged the council to hold a meeting to address and clarify the direction it wants for the city.

The majority of the council voted in July to issue what's called a request for qualification from outside firms after Mayor Don Hansen said the city should entertain cost-saving measures.

McGrath would not lose her job, since she's been elected, but her staff would if the city outsources the office.

Twelve law firms have responded to the city's request, and now the city manager has set up a selection committee to determine which of those firms qualifies to represent the city before presenting the findings to the council, McGrath said.

McGrath refused to take part in the committee, which is made up of the city manager and two assistant city managers, she said. She acknowledged that the council voted to issue a request for qualification, but said it was only to look for cost-saving measures. She added that the request for qualification isn't the right method of doing it.

"That's a matter of implication versus indication," she said. "The vote was to explore cost-savings opportunities."

McGrath said that instead the council should have explored cost-saving measures for her office through a study, much like the audit that was recently authorized by the council and conducted last year. The audit found that the operation of the city attorney's office was "lean" when compared to other cities like Santa Ana and San Bernardino.

How much each of those 12 firms is asking for has not been made public at this point, but McGrath said she's confident it far outweighs what her office costs. She analyzed the cost based on how much surrounding cities pay outside firms for their legal services, she said.

In her report, McGrath raised several issues with the direction the city has taken so far, listing various case laws in Orange County and throughout the states showing that, ultimately, one government body cannot tamper with or dismantle the authority of an elected office. She also said this process could cost taxpayers a lot of money, which is also why she wants a meeting to clarify the city's direction.

McGrath said the council has no authority under state law nor the city's own charter to change the current model of her office.

"Case law is clear that neither the City Council nor city manager have the legal authority to determine staffing decisions concerning how, or by whom, the separately elected city attorney chooses to fulfill the charter responsibility of the office," McGrath said in her report.

Hansen disagrees, saying that before he suggested the city issue a request for qualification, he consulted with people in the legal field and was told the city is within its rights to do so.

"I believe we followed the right process, absolutely," he said, adding that he doesn't see the need for the city to hold a meeting as McGrath has requested.

Asked if she's going to challenge the city in court, McGrath said she hasn't decided yet, but that she will take whatever measures to protect taxpayers' money.

"Taxpayers voted seven times since the 1950s to make sure that this office stays elected," she said.

Twitter: @MonaShadia

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