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Attorneys vie for position of Village solicitor

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Last Wednesday, Jan. 28, Village Council at a special meeting heard presentations from three law firms that are vying for the position of Village solicitor.

Council expects to choose a solicitor by its Feb. 17 meeting, Village Manager Patti Bates said at Council’s regular meeting Monday night. While an executive session for the purpose of discussion of the hiring of a Village official preceded the meeting, no decision was made.

“We are still gathering information,” Bates said.

Council chose to re-look at the solicitor position because it has been 13 years since the Village hired Coolidge Wall as its solicitor, and generally it’s considered best practice to reconsider the position every five or 10 years, according to Bates.

Council had eight applicants for the job, out of which two were eliminated for not complying with requirements of the RFQ, or Request for Qualifications, according to Bates. Council considered the remaining six firms and three — Coolidge Wall, Bricker and Eckler and FrostBrownTodd — were invited to the special meeting, which included presentations and public interviews. Two citizens, Sue Abendroth and Nadia Malarkey, attended the meeting.

The Village solicitor, sometimes called law director, is a contracted position that performs a variety of duties, according to Council President Karen Wintrow in an email, including providing legal counsel, preparing and reviewing legislation, representing the Village in court proceedings, and ensuring adequate training for all elected and appointed personnel regarding compliance with the Ohio Sunshine Laws, among others.

In recent years, the costs of contracting with Coolidge Wall had increased. In 2010, the Village paid $43,585.87 for its solicitor, while in 2011 the cost jumped to $124,258, then $113,909.28 in 2012 and $114,875.37 in 2013. Last year the Village paid $77,605.94 for the position. The higher amounts from 2011 to 2013 corresponded to a lawsuit against the Village over utility rights, a case the Village lost.

Connection to village
In his presentation on Wednesday, Chris Conard of Coolidge Wall, who for the past several years has served as the Village solicitor, emphasized that the firm wants to keep expenses manageable for the Village. In that effort, Coolidge Wall proposed that the Village pay a monthly fee of $4,750 to the firm, with an annual cap of $57,000. However, he said, the cost could go higher if the Village needs specialized help in areas such as zoning or labor issues.

In contrast, the firm of FrostBrownTodd proposed a $9,500 monthly fee while the third firm, Bricker and Eckler, proposed a $200 hourly rate.

Conard cited the continuity and institutional knowledge he brings from his past work with the Village, along with his respect for the values and activist spirit of Yellow Springs, as among the strengths his firm brings to the job. It’s important that the solicitor understands local values, he said.

“The passion that villagers bring to the table is remarkable,” he said. “Sometimes it’s challenging, but that’s what government is all about.”

Conard also cited his own deep connections to Yellow Springs, the home of his sister and brother-in-law, Angie and John Day, and the future home of his parents.

The Dayton-based Coolidge Wall, with 33 staff attorneys, was the smallest firm interviewed.

Conard, for 11 years a public defender in Dayton, heads the Coolidge Wall department of municipal law. While during his previous stint as solicitor Conard did not attend all Council meetings, he strongly recommended to Council that the future solicitor do so, to enhance understanding of local issues.

“If you don’t know the background, you’re being reactive,” Conard said. “The best lawyering is proactive.”

If Coolidge Wall were rehired, the Village would be assisted by a team of attorneys consisting of Conard, former solicitor John Chambers, Steve McHugh and Amy Blankenship.

Public law specialist
A team approach to the position was also the approach of representatives of Bricker and Eckler, a large Ohio firm with about 160 attorneys in Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland and West Chester. The firm is one of the largest public law firms in Ohio, according to its proposal, and represents more than 1,000 governmental agencies.

The advantage to Yellow Springs of hiring a larger firm is the breadth of expertise available, according to attorney David Lampe, who said that experience would also cut costs.

“How would we manage billable hours?” he said. “We’ll make sure to have someone doing the work who is not re-inventing the wheel. More often than not, there’s a colleague who has already researched the issue.”

Lampe, who would be the principal point of contact for Yellow Springs, has mainly worked for school districts, he said, including that of Yellow Springs.

“My work is 100 percent representing public entities,” he said. Lampe would be assisted by Joelle Khousam, currently city attorney for Grandview Heights.

Yellow Springs native Dylan Borchers also works for the firm, and made a presentation to Council. In his second year at Bricker and Eckler, Borchers specializes in renewable energy development, and would be called in to work on any Village involvement in that issue.

Asked by Malarkey about his most exciting moment as an environmental lawyer, Borchers recalled his first case representing a wind farm in northwest Ohio, in which he attempted to persuade the court to liberalize setback requirements in order to facilitate construction of the project. He won the case.

In response to a question from Council member Marianne MacQueen about how the firm’s work representing oil companies would square with the Village’s stance against fracking, Khouzam said that all larger firms have a certain number of attorneys representing competing interests.

“Our objective as your lawyer is to represent what your goals are,” Khouzam said.

Pride in risk management
The third firm to make a presentation, FrostBrownTodd, is the largest of the three firms represented, with about 450 attorneys at offices across the Midwest. Making the presentation was veteran attorney Mitchell Banchevsky of Columbus, who said he appreciates several Yellow Springs landmarks.

“You had me at Young’s Dairy,” he said, stating he also admires the Village for its strategic planning and form-based zoning.

FrostBrownTodd is also offering a team approach to representing the Village, according to Banchevsky. Attorney Jennifer Croghan, currently the assistant law director of Canal Winchester, Ohio, would be the primary point person, with others available if necessary, Banchevsky said, stating that if an attorney isn’t available for a question or concern, someone would be available within 24 hours.

Altogether, the firm serves as law director for 13 municipalities, according to Banchevsky.

“You won’t find another law firm that does what we do,” he said, stating that the services offered are “comparable to having an in-house counsel.”

Asked by MacQueen what it means to have an in-house counsel, Banchevsky said, “Our point is that we have the expertise, we have the depth.”

The firm emphasizes risk management, he said, and recently offered training in open records and public meeting requirements for all citizens serving on boards and commissions of New Albany, Ohio, a town for which the firm works, so that potential problems could be averted before they arise.

“We pride ourselves in risk management,” he said.


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