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Willmar, Minn., City Council picks separate law firms for civil, criminal work

The city of Willmar has selected Anderson Law Offices as city prosecutor to prosecute city criminal cases.

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council has selected the law firm of Flaherty and Hood of St. Paul as the new city attorney to advise the city on municipal and civil matters, and has selected the Anderson Law Offices of Willmar as city prosecutor to prosecute city criminal cases.

The council's actions during a special Thursday meeting mark the end of the one-man-shop arrangement under which retiring City Attorney Rich Ronning has provided prosecution of criminal cases, and provided legal advice to the city, for the past 37 years.

The council approved each firm on a separate vote.

The motions of approval directed Ronning before he retires on March 31 to finalize contracts with both law firms, effective April 1. The council will vote on the contracts at the April 2 meeting.

The 5-2 vote to hire Flaherty reflects the majority's comfort with Flaherty's experience representing outstate cities as city attorney. Also, the firm has experience in land use development, employment, annexation and contract negotiations. However, concerns were expressed about the availability of Flaherty to have an attorney present at local meetings.

Council members voting in favor of Flaherty were Doug Reese, Steve Ahmann, Denis Anderson, Bruce DeBlieck and Tim Johnson. Voting against were Ron Christianson and Jim Dokken. Rick Fagerlie was absent.

The vote to hire the Anderson firm was 7-0.

The council solicited requests for proposals from law firms to provide civil and criminal services, and had set a Feb. 23 deadline for receiving proposals. On March 8, the council interviewed the Flaherty firm, which said it would provide civil services only, and interviewed the Anderson, Larson, Hanson and Saunders law firm of Willmar, which said it would provide both civil and criminal services.

On March 12, Thomas Anderson submitted a proposal after establishing his office and the council voted last week to interview him Thursday evening even though his proposal was submitted after the deadline. Anderson offered separate proposals to provide criminal services, and provide both civil and criminal services.

Anderson previously worked with the Willmar law firm of Johnson, Moody, Schmidt and Kleinhuizen, where approximately 80 percent of his work involved criminal defense of misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor and felony level crimes. The remaining 20 percent involved personal injury litigation, civil contract claims and property claims. He said he had no experience in preparing ordinances or resolutions.

Ronning has estimated that he spends between 70 percent and 75 percent of his time on criminal matters and the remaining time on civil matters. The city currently budgets $196,000 for legal services.

The Flaherty firm's proposal calls for a general rate of $105 per hour; $125 per hour for other civil matters; and $145 for litigation. Travel time is billed at 50 percent of the $105 rate.

Anderson proposed a fee of $107,000 in 2012 for criminal services with increases to $117,000 in 2015. For civil and criminal combined, he proposed $175,000 in 2012 increasing to $205,000 in 2015.

In an interview after the meeting, Mayor Frank Yanish said the council took the best interests of the city into consideration. He thought that having the two firms will work out fine.

"I think that they made the right decision,'' he said.

City Administrator Charlene Stevens said Flaherty and Hood has said it would have either attorney Christopher Hood or Robert Scott present at any council or Municipal Utilities Commission meeting that they are asked to attend.

"That's for initial meetings or foreseeable future. It's up to the city to determine if they are not needed at a meeting or if they could be available via phone and such, but that's at the city discretion,'' said Stevens.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150