Olentangy Valley News

Should township rely on county prosecutor for legal counsel?

One Liberty Township trustee says that call could save cash on legal fees; another says it's 'micromanagement'

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A discussion of Liberty Township's use of outside legal help last week revealed a split among the board of trustees.

Trustee Melanie Leneghan said the township's administration has been paying for legal counsel too often when free representation from the Delaware County Prosecutor's Office would suffice. The trustees met Feb. 5 with Chris Betts, head of the civil division of the prosecutor's office, to discuss how other townships employ private legal aid.

Betts said the prosecutor's office can act as legal representation for townships in any case as long as two county entities are not on opposite sides of the case. He said the prosecutor's office may suggest a township seek outside help if the case is about a specialized topic such as contract law or certain zoning issues.

Leneghan said a call needed to be made to the prosecutor's office before the township seeks outside counsel. She also said the trustees should have prior approval for any legal costs incurred by the administration.

"The process should be ... we go to Chris first and say, 'Chris, here's what we're looking to do. Can you do this?' " she said.

Township Administrator Dave Anderson said he has a good working relationship with the prosecutor's office, but concerns about complexity and timeliness in certain cases can lead him to seek outside legal help for the township.

He said he and the township's staff already work to keep legal fees as low as possible.

"Part of my job is making sure the budget, numbers and finances work out," he said. "Do you think I'm not already having these conversations with me and my staff?"

Anderson said the township spent less on legal fees in 2013 -- $152,057 -- than it had in the past seven years.

The township spent more than $883,000 on legal fees in 2008 and slightly less than $590,000 in 2007. More than half of those amounts went toward a legal fight over a proposed Walmart on Sawmill Parkway.

The township spent between $152,900 and $380,072 on legal fees each year between 2009-12.

Leneghan said legal costs have gone down in recent years because major cases wrapped up, not necessarily because the township was using outside legal help less often.

Trustee Tom Mitchell said he thought Leneghan brought up valid concerns, but he said he found nothing improper when reviewing the township's recent legal fees.

"To me, it's a bit of a mountain out of a molehill," he said.

Mitchell said requiring prior approval on all legal expenditures could send Anderson the message that the board does not trust him. He asked Leneghan if the trustees should require Anderson to check with the board before ordering office supplies as well.

Leneghan said she thought the township's administration had made questionable decisions on using law firms in the past regarding zoning issues and human-resources training.

"Why can't we just call the county prosecutor? That's two minutes," she said.

Anderson said discussing every use of legal counsel with the prosecutor and then bringing it before the board for approval would be time-consuming and unnecessary.

"It's called micromanagement to me," he said.

Anderson said his years of experience in local government administration had taught him what situations call for outside legal help.

Trustee Shyra Eichhorn said she was conflicted about the issue. She said she supported the idea of consistently making an initial call to the prosecutor's office but added that she trusted Anderson's judgment.

"The last thing I want to do is to micromanage, because I'm a big believer that if you have to micromanage, you don't have the right people," she said. "And I have a lot of faith in (Anderson)."

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