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Willmar, Minn., City Council to select city attorney March 19

WILLMAR -- Two law firms proposing to provide city attorney services have made their pitch to members of the Willmar City Council, and council members will make a decision next week prior to the regular meeting.

Representatives of Flaherty and Hood of St. Paul and Anderson, Larson, Hanson and Saunders of Willmar were interviewed Thursday during a two-hour special meeting.

Council members attending the interviews were Bruce DeBlieck, Tim Johnson, Jim Dokken, Steve Ahmann, Ron Christianson and Doug Reese. Denis Anderson and Rick Fagerlie were absent. Also attending was Mayor Frank Yanish and City Administrator Charlene Stevens.

Council members did not select a firm to replace City Attorney Rich Ronning who will retire March 31 after 37 years of service. They voted to continue the meeting to 5 p.m. March 19, two hours before the start of the next regular meeting, when a selection would be made.

At the council's request, Stevens will be attempting to quantify and estimate the amount of time Ronning spends prosecuting criminal matters and the amount of time spent on civil matters.

Civil matters include reviewing contracts, drafting ordinances and other city matters, and advising the council, Municipal Utilities Commission and Rice Hospital Board.

Ronning estimated 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.

Willmar is among cities that are switching to law firms as their longtime city attorneys retire.

"The challenge that we have is we have a model with Rich, which essentially is an in-house attorney and the cost of that, and the city is not replicating that model and it is a little difficult to do the direct cost comparison,'' Stevens said in an interview.

Stevens said the city is looking for a two-year proposal.

Stevens told the council that seven to eight requests were sent to law firms for proposals to represent the city. She said three firms submitted proposals. A committee studied the proposals and recommended the council interview two firms: Flaherty and Hood of St. Paul and Anderson, Larson, Hanson and Saunders of Willmar.

Christopher Hood and Robert Scott from Flaherty and Hood said their firm would handle only civil work and would not provide prosecutorial services. Hood said he would be lead attorney and first point of contact on all city legal issues.

Hood said the firm would have someone attend as many meetings in person as the council desires. However, he said most civil work and contact with staff is handled via email and telephone.

Flaherty and Hood proposed a rate of $105 per hour for general work and $125 per hour for other civil matters; $145 per hour for litigation; and said travel would be billed at 50 percent of the $105 hourly rate. The firm would bill in 15-minute increments.

Flaherty and Hood represents the cities of Grand Marais, Northfield, Park Rapids, Sartell, Stewartville and Winona, and has served as special project attorneys for dozens of cities in greater Minnesota. The firm has experience in land use development, employment, annexation and contract negotiations.

Stevens said Kandiyohi County submitted a proposal for prosecutorial services. The possibility of contracting with the county had been suggested previously, she said.

Under the three-year proposal, the county would charge $115,898 in 2012, $121,520 in 2013 and $122,082 in 2014. Costs to the county include adding a full-time equivalent (FTE) attorney, one-quarter FTE individual for victim services, and administrative charges.

Anderson, Larson, Hanson and Saunders proposed providing both prosecutorial and civil services. The firm proposed a rate of $150 per hour; $75 per hour for paralegal; and the firm would bill in 10-minute increments. Total cost would be capped at $196,000. The firm represents the cities of Renville, Hector, Bird Island, Kandiyohi and Prinsburg.

Jon Saunders of Anderson, Larson said the firm is local, has attorneys with expertise in different areas and wants to help the city. He said partner Sarah Klaassen would provide the prosecutorial services.

Among the questions asked by council members, Doug Reese asked attorneys from both firms if a "hot'' issue were present before the council would they offer their opinion or only provide a legal opinion.

Hood said it's not appropriate to interject his opinion in a policy debate, but said he'll "jump in'' on a legal issue.

Saunders said his opinion would be limited to legal issues.

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