April 02, 2020

Belfast councilors ponder hiring `in-house’ attorney> Manager outlines advantages, disadvantages

BELFAST — As the City Council continues the process of hiring a new city manager, it is now taking its first step in finding a replacement for John Carver, the city attorney.

Carver, who has been retained as Belfast’s city attorney for about 16 years, notified the council in November that he would not be seeking another term when his contract ends on June 30. In a memo to the council, Carver wrote that he wanted to devote more time to his family and courtroom law. But he also cited the “extremely stressful” environment at City Hall over the council’s investigation into the conduct of Arlo Redman, the city manager who resigned Nov. 24, and Robert Temple, the code enforcement officer.

“I don’t at all enjoy the City Hall atmosphere created by this infighting,” Carver wrote. “I want no part of it.”

Although divided over the issue, the council has continued its investigation into Temple’s enforcement of city regulations and building codes.

Bob Keating, acting city manager, was asked earlier this month by Councilor Mike Lewis to provide the council with information about hiring an in-house attorney rather than contracting with a firm.

The city budgeted $70,000 for the services of the city attorney in the 1997-98 budget year.

According to information Keating got from the Maine Municipal Association, five municipalities in Maine have in-house attorneys: Portland, Bangor, Westbrook, South Portland and Rockland.

The advantage of retaining an outside attorney — and thus the firm in which he or she works — is that there will be a greater variety of expertise and experience, Keating wrote.

On the other hand, with an in-house attorney on staff, city officials do not have to pay each time an attorney is consulted. “The attorney can work into the flow of what is going on in the community and city business, and he or she knows the background and the thoughts of the administration city council and various city boards regarding issues in that community,” Keating wrote.

Rockland, with a population of 7,700 — about 1,000 more than Belfast — has had a staff attorney for about seven years. The attorney, who earns $45,000 annually, works on legal matters pertaining to zoning, deeds, contracts, personnel and grievances, and attends City Council and zoning commission meetings.

“I still don’t know which side of this I come down on,” Lewis said Thursday. “I just thought that this would be a good time to look at the option of having an attorney on staff. It might be a good way to take care of a lot of stuff that’s backed up on us.” An in-house attorney could routinely help the city in updating ordinances, he said.

Councilor John Krakar said he also hasn’t made up his mind about whether to hire an in-house attorney. “In general, I’d rather go with an outside firm because it has more expertise,” he said. “You have more options with it.” His major concern about hiring an in-house attorney is that the city might have to hire someone with little experience in order to keep the salary down. “If we put a premium on cost, we’re going to get someone too green, I’m afraid,” Krakar said. He added later, “Salary isn’t the whole cost of hiring an attorney.”

Keating has asked the five councilors to provide him with feedback about filling the city attorney position. The issue is expected to be discussed at the council’s meeting on Feb. 3.

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