Editorial: City will have to keep close eye on possible issues with firm

City Hall

Despite potential conflicts of interest for the city’s contracted attorney, Hollister-based L&G, the firm deserves the same chance as any other competitor to prove its objectivity and worthiness for the job.  
Hollister council members Dec. 16 approved hiring the firm for contracted city attorney services after choosing two finalists from a pool of six interested applicants. L&G’s lawyers replace an interim attorney from another local firm who bridged the gap between the departure of former, permanent City Attorney Stephanie Atigh – who left in June – and the December agreement.
City officials hope to save a six-figure sum through the deal. With Atigh’s former salary and benefits, along with other costs in the department, officials at the December meeting underscored that the city attorney position had an annual cost nearing $300,000. The deal with L&G calls for $8,750 monthly for up to 15 hours of work per week, with an additional charge of $130 hourly after that point.  Under that 15-hour week scenario, the annual cost comes to $105,000 – with significant savings even if the overtime hours are necessary at times. The likelihood of savings, however, isn’t the primary issue at hand.
It’s no secret that L&G in recent years has represented an array of developers, oil interests and property owners in the agriculture community.  Additionally, the firm has been active in donating money to local political candidates.
The law firm is comprised of attorneys who formerly ran the Hollister office of Lombardo & Gilles, which represented DMB in its defunct pursuit of a 6,800-unit planned community along Highway 25 in county jurisdiction. L&G still represents many local builders and potential developers, and its attorneys are often first in line to speak at public meetings when matters arise on agendas relating to development, growth or – as we saw in the early months of 2013 – oil-extraction regulations.
The firm’s clients generally do more business with the county than the city. But with development in an intertwined community such as this one, many of those more rural interests have had significant impacts, or potential impacts, on Hollister. For example, some projects bring about tax-sharing arrangements between the two jurisdictions – which are bound to continue exchanging land in annexation agreements as Hollister grows from the outskirts.  
If a conflict arises – or even the appearance of a conflict – L&G and city officials would have to recognize the issue and possibly hire someone to handle the matter.  A conflict here and there wouldn’t be the end of the world. An abundance of conflicts would be cause for concern, though, and hiring other outside attorneys would dampen economic and functional efficiencies gained from the contracted agreement.  Ultimately, the city has to protect itself against the prospect of a developer being rejected and alleging some sort of favoritism might have been behind the decision. And at times, the perception of a conflict can be as dangerous, or more, than an actual one.
That’s not to say L&G is the only firm in town with a possibility for conflicts of interest, though. The reality is that just about any law firm chosen for the contracted job would face conflicts of interest in a small community such as San Benito County.  As with any contracted situation, and especially considering the importance of the city attorney job, council members will need to keep a close watch on how the agreement plays out and whether any serious problems might arise.

Leave your comments