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Editorial: City needs to hire the Willmar law firm

Editor's Note: This editorial has been updated to correct a factabout the two law firms availability for meetings.

The Willmar City Council is facing a decision Monday on the future of its city attorney position, with Rich Ronning retiring March 31. This is a critical position that currently handles the city's civil and criminal legal manners.

It is an important decision in two perspectives: from the standing of replacing the current city attorney and from a standpoint of supporting local businesses.

First, it has become apparent that the time has come for the city of Willmar to get more effective legal counsel.

In recent months, the city and its representatives have become involved in significant legal issues -- such as a Municipal Utilities general manager contract with an alleged unenforceable term; dealing appropriately with the recent utilities management review process; alleged defamation charges against Mayor Frank Yanish and Council member Ron Christianson; and alleged open meeting law violations by city and/or utility officials.

Citizens are wondering what is going on at the utility and the City Council. Are the city and its officials are not listening to legal counsel? Is legal counsel only responding when asked questions? Are some city officials just going rogue and creating legal issues for the city? Or is it a little of all three or more?

So it is apparent that this city needs more effective legal representation.

The council has decided to look at foregoing a staff city attorney and instead hiring private and/or contact legal representation. A city staff considered three proposals -- one from a Willmar-based law firm and two non-Willmar-based law firms -- before forwarding proposals from the Willmar firm and a St. Paul law firm to the council, which is scheduled Monday to make a decision.

The Utilities Commission earlier this week approved a motion requesting the new city attorney attend its twice-a-month meetings, with several commissioners speaking of the need for legal counsel at those meetings. Both the Willmar and St. Paul law firms said they could have representation at the utility meetings in person as needed. Each firm also offered legal counsel via electronic means as a cost-saving measure option for the city.

An outside non-Willmar legal firm at this time does not appear to be an appropriate decision for several reasons:

• With the need for timely and sound legal counsel for the city, it does not appear logical or cost effective at this time to go with an outside legal firm.

• It is also important for the city attorney(s) to know and understand the local issues, institutions and leaders of the community.

• With a past record by the mayor and various City County members of supporting local Willmar business, the selection of the non-Willmar-based firm would seem illogical.

• For major legal issues, the city also has access to the legal representation of the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust, just as it was utilized during the utility's general manager situation.

Thus, we believe hiring the locally-based attorney firm is the best decision for the city of Willmar at this time.