Keeping It Legal: Sandwich Represented By An Array Of Attorneys

A rise in the town's legal expenses has some questioning the reasons for the increase and others suggesting that it might be cheaper to have an attorney on staff rather than farm out cases to different law firms.

When resident Mike Merolla of Liberty Street ran for selectmen in 2010, he suggested that the town could save money by having its own in-house counsel.

Not so, said Town Manager George H. Dunham.

He said the only town that he knows of that has its own in-house counsel is Barnstable.

"They have three in-house attorneys but their budget is much larger than ours," he said.

And even with those attorneys on staff, he said, there are times when Barnstable must still hire outside attorneys who specialize in different areas.

And at a rate of $175 per hour, Mr. Dunham said Sandwich is getting a good deal for its money.

"We couldn't afford to hire somebody like John Giorgio [of Kopelman & Paige] with his experience and expertise. We pay Kopelman & Paige $175 per hour for their services. Other towns would be shocked by the rates that we pay," he said.

Though that law firm serves as the town's general counsel, with attorneys specializing in different areas such as land sales, or zoning issues, Mr. Dunham said the town also uses other firms, such as BCK, PC, out of Newton, which handles any issues related to energy or utilities.

"They handle issues like the power plant, including the monthly conference calls that we have with GenOn. We have used this firm constantly over the past 12 years. They steered us through the bankruptcy issue when the power plant filed for bankruptcy," Mr. Dunham said.

In 2009 and 2010, the town stayed well under its budgeted amount for legal expenses. However, in 2011 there was a significant increase, with expenses jumping from $208,882 in 2010 to $296,298. Though the expenses dropped down to $248,414 this year, it still represents an increase over earlier years. Mr. Dunham said the majority of these increases is due to NStar's proposed project to install a third transmission line that will serve as back-up power if its other two lines should fail.

Mr. Dunham explained that because the town would be affected by this project both in terms of the transmission line running through Sandwich and the impact that this new line will have on the town's biggest taxpayer, GenOn, Sandwich must have legal representation at all hearings.

Though GenOn and Cape Light Compact donated $50,000 and $47,000, respectively, to help defray the legal costs incurred by the town, Mr. Dunham said the NStar project has still proved to be very costly, legally speaking.

"By far, that has been the most expensive case. Spread out over the past two years, it has cost us about $150,000 in legal fees," Mr. Dunham said.

Separate from the town's general legal fees are the town's labor relations fees. Mr. Dunham said these fees are for anything related to personnel matters, including updates to the town's personnel and policy guidelines, workers’ compensation issues, and disciplinary issues.

The disciplinary issues, Mr. Dunham said, typically do not represent a significant expense. "It only gets really expensive if the matter rises to the level of arbitration, but that's very rare," he said.

He could not speak specifically about any personnel issues that have risen to the arbitration point, triggering a notable increase in the labor relations costs. However, in fiscal year 2011, the same year that former police officer Dennis J. Bryne was fired from his job, there were two bills paid to the labor relations law firm of Murphy, Lamere and Murphy, PC, totaling $15,341. That same year, the town spent a total of $56,963 in labor relations costs, which was up from $39,585 the previous year.

Not included in the town's general legal fees is the cost of legal services incurred by the school department. Mr. Dunham said those expenses fall in the school department's budget.

With respect to the cost of lawsuits filed by former employees or by citizens, Mr. Dunham said those types of claims do not impact his legal account.

After former Sandwich High School football player Ty McGrath, who was arrested for allegedly assaulting a freshman player, was found not guilty of the charges, he filed a $1 million suit against the town for violating his civil rights and intimidation by the police department. Mr. Dunham said the town's insurance company will handle the legal costs associated with this case. "When we receive a notification of intent to sue, we immediately contact our insurance company, MIIA, Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association and they begin working on the case," Mr. Dunham said.

Though such suits could have an impact on the town's insurance premiums, Mr. Dunham said the premiums have not risen significantly.

"They haven't gone up any more than other towns," he said.

Last week, Town Meeting approved adding another $50,000 to the general government's legal account. Mr. Dunham said this money will be used to pay for the services of consultants that will be hired for certain projects. He said this year, he will have to spend $17,000 to hire a consultant to appraise the power plant.

He said other projects, such as the sale of the town-owned 56 acres in South Sandwich, will also require hiring consultants for certain issues. He said just as labor relations and general legal fees have their own separate line items in the budget, he will most likely add another line item in the fiscal year 2014 budget, specifically for consulting costs.

 

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