The Clintonville Common Council voted to spend up to $1,000 to hire a special counsel to investigate the compensation, function, job description and recruitment for the city attorney’s position.
The motion passed by a 6-3 vote at a special council meeting Tuesday, May 6.
Aldermen Bill Zeinert, Phil Rath and Mark Doornink voted against the motion. Jerry Jorgenson was excused from the meeting.
Alderwoman Mary Beth Kuester made the original motion. She said it was for the purpose of researching the job description, pay level and recruitment of a city attorney.
Kuester recommended Warren Kraft of Murphy Desmond law firm. She said Kraft has been a city attorney for Oshkosh and West Bend.
According to a bio on the Murphy Desmond website, Kraft has indeed been a city attorney for Oshkosh. His role with the city of West Bend is listed as human resource director.
“We’ve been doing research on our own even though a committee was not appointed,” Kuester said.
Kraft was present at the special council meeting.
The committee she referred to was a special committee to be created to research the city attorney position. Kuester said she was told by Mayor Judy Magee that she would be on this special committee. When that committee was not formed in a couple of weeks, she wondered what happened.
City Administrator Lisa Kotter informed the council that the mayor does not have the authority to appoint a special committee without the council’s approval. Since the special committee was not on the agenda of the meeting when it was first brought up, this approval needed to come at a future council meeting.
The approval of the special committee was the ninth item on the agenda of the May 6 special council meeting.
Kotter told the council that her understanding is that Tim Schmid is the de facto city attorney for the next two years, so his salary would still go to him.
“I had asked you as you know what this was about because I certainly could have helped and done some research myself but I was told by the council that you had no idea what this special counsel item meant,” Kotter said to Kuester. “So having someone here and immediately making a motion, my concern is, No. 1, does the rest of the council know how much we are paying this attorney to do research.”
Kotter also asked where the funds would come from to pay for the special counsel. She said in the past city employees have done this research so there is no extra cost to taxpayers.
Schmid agreed that it would be less costly to contact other municipalities directly.
Kuester responded, “The reason we felt we need to have special counsel is that the present city attorney was advising the administrator and the mayor and we didn’t have anyone to turn to.”
She said the council tried to call a special meeting prior to May 1, when the new term of the city attorney started.
Schmid responded, “To imply that the city attorney only advises the mayor and city administrator and nobody else is not quite true, it’s not true at all.”
Magee added that there was nothing on the agenda that council President Jeannie Schley presented to her that constituted a special council meeting.
Kotter added that the only person who can call a special council meeting is the mayor. The council president does not have the authority unless the mayor is absent.
“We felt we were stymied, we don’t know why we’re stymied so we felt we needed some legal advice,” Kuester said.
Kuester said the funds to pay for the special counsel would hopefully come from the potential savings of paying less for a city attorney.
Even though the initial motion for special counsel was for the purpose of researching job description, pay level and recruitment of a city attorney, and no special committee had been approved by the council Kuester said, “We are not paying attorney Kraft for the research, our committee has already done that. We know enough to call all the city attorneys and we talked to all of them in the surrounding areas.”
Kuester said the billing rate would be $175 per hour and recommended a limit on what is spent.
She said a savings of at least $10,000 was the goal.
Alderman Greg Rose added, “We’re trying to do our due diligence here to save the taxpayers money. When we identified and [were] made aware of the cost between our attorney here and in other communities, saving $20,000 ballpark between some of these communities is a big deal.”
Kuester also indicated she has personal representation by Kraft and she asked him about the May 1 start date for the city attorney. She said they couldn’t find anything about the May 1 start date.
Schmid said the term of office begins May 1, and that he was sworn in on that date.
“I want to make sure in communication that, I, as a professional, asked you if there was something we could do and your words to me were that the council had no idea why they would hire an attorney,” Kotter said to Kuester. “And if you had an attorney here, and you instantly made an agenda item, and you asked to have it first on the agenda, I think you knew very well.”
The motion was amended to fund the special counsel from the contingency fund up to $1,000.
“Having kind of just gotten my arms around all of this about what’s clearly going on, and a number of times the term ‘we’ has been used, as in ‘we’ need representation, ‘we’ need to look into things, who is ‘we?’” Zienert asked.
“Members of the council, the people that asked for this that voted, I would say the people that voted naye to the city attorney because they wanted more information, would be the people that would be ‘we,’” Kuester said.
“Tonight was the first I’ve heard about this but it sounds like many others have heard of this all already so I’m just curious how this information got spread to all the council members,” Doornink asked.
“Well, Mary Beth called me and asked a question. I’m answering her question. She’s a new council person and she wants answers. I’m going to answer her,” Schley said.
A motion was made and passed 6-3 to call the question.
Later during the special meeting, the council unanimously approved Magee’s creation of a special committee to research the city attorney position, as well as the appointments of Kuester, Rose and Alderman Jim Krause to the committee.