City to hire own lawyer to improve access and accountability

After using the services of a Red Deer law firm for more than 50 years, the City of Red Deer will hire its own lawyer to improve access and accountability with municipal staff.

After using the services of a Red Deer law firm for more than 50 years, the City of Red Deer will hire its own lawyer to improve access and accountability with municipal staff.

On Monday, city council approved creating an internal legal services unit, comprising of one lawyer and one support staff. They would begin once the current contract with Chapman Riebeek ends on Dec. 31, 2012.

But there would still be a need to tender for specialized services, council agreed.

Elaine Vincent, manager of Legislative and Governance Services, said Chapman Riebeek lawyers could apply for the internal position, or Chapman Riebeek could apply for the contracted work that the city will still need to have done. She said Chapman Riebeek has been able to deliver about 85 per cent of the city’s work, plus it carries specialities that many other firms don’t have.

“We do believe that we can bring an in-house solicitor who will be able to do about 50 to 60 per cent of the work that we need to get done,” said Vincent. “If we get the right people in who have a solid understanding of municipal governance, then I think the city will be better off.”

Council and administration complimented Chapman Riebeek for the solid work they’ve done over the years, including being a part of city council meetings. Eight other legal firms have been used for specialized matters such as human resources and annexations.

Western Management Consultants in Edmonton conducted a review and decided an internal legal services unit was the best. Vincent recommended the same option.

She said cost wasn’t a factor in the recommendation.

The average annual cost of legal services for the city is $600,000. An in-house legal team of two staff would cost an estimated $562,250. She figured creating internal legal services will not realize any cost savings, particularly during the year of transition when more administrative time would be required.

Rather, it will offer other benefits — it would allow the city to exercise greater control over the level of legal services, ensure legal services are available in a timely manner, and it’s consistent with the city’s future vision of being a major city in the province.

Gordon Harris, director with Western Management Consultants, said their review included talking with council, senior leadership as well as other staff who required legal services. They also spoke with Chapman Riebeek to get their perspective on what was working and what wasn’t.

Plus, the consultants reviewed what was being done in Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, Strathcona County and Victoria.

“It’s really a local decision and it really depends on the level of service that the city wants to provide,” said Harris. “You can do it either way.”

Grande Prairie, for instance, has a longstanding relationship with a law firm in the city and has retained the firm on a four-year contract.

“The City of Calgary, the City of Edmonton, the City of Vancouver have a large (legal) department so the size of an organization tends to drive it to some extent,” said Harris.

Councillor Cindy Jefferies said she envisions that this will be a positive move for the city, as has been the case when it decided to form its own planning department instead of contracting out.

Councillor Chris Stephan, a lawyer himself, was the sole one to oppose the motion to go in-house. Councillor Paul Harris was absent during the motion.

“I don’t think philosophically, or in practice, when we bring things in-house that we do it better,” said Stephan, adding he’d rather see the lawyer not report to a specific department.

Vincent suggested as well that in 2012, that Chapman Riebeek lawyers don’t need to attend every council meeting. These cost savings would be brought up during 2012 operational budget talks.

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