Thursday, April 05, 2012
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New fiscal year to see changes in the position of city attorney

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[April 05, 2012]  Lincoln City Council members spent their morning Saturday in chambers hashing out the fine details of the operating budget for the fiscal year that will begin May 1.

At the first budget meeting on March 10, finance chair Melody Anderson drew a line at the end of the day and said that considering all the information on hand, the city was within $15,000 of breaking even. However, she also noted throughout the first meeting that there were still some uncertainties: for example, wage and fringe increases and increases in the various kinds of insurance.

Last Saturday she opened the meeting by saying the actual amount that needed to be cut from the new budget would come to $309,000.

While it was conceded there is a fund balance in the bank that would make it possible to run the city in the coming year with this type of shortfall, it was also agreed that if cuts could be made, they should be.

One such cut came in a place that may have been somewhat unexpected by the majority of the council: in the office of the city attorney.

Mayor Keith Snyder said he had been in conversation with city attorney Bill Bates, and Bates wants to step aside as the official attorney for the city.

The city attorney contract is with Woods & Bates, a firm that is managed by Bill Bates with his son, Blinn. For the last few years, Blinn has served as the backup, representing the city in Bill Bates' absence.

What the senior Bates would like to do is make Blinn the principal in the city attorney position and himself the backup.

Snyder also pointed out the amount of money involved in a new contract had fallen from $81,000 per year to $78,000. The change didn't have so much to do with the change in official attorney as with a proposed change in the number of times a city attorney needs to be present in council meetings.

Snyder said the suggestion was to drop the required attendance to 36 meetings per year, with an average of one meeting per month when the attorney would not need to be present.

Snyder said he thought this was manageable, as there are meetings when the city attorney really is not needed. An example of this would be meetings when there are very few agenda items to vote on, or nothing that would require further discussion and guidance from the city attorney.

Regarding Blinn Bates, Snyder said Blinn has been doing a lot of the behind-the-scenes work for the city for quite some time now. He has worked with ordinance writing and revision, legal representation in court, and several other aspects of the internal operations of the city attorney.

Snyder also noted that Bill Bates was not resigning from representing the city. He still will be in the background and will offer his experience and knowledge to his son and to the city as needed.

In addition, Snyder noted that Bates has worked under the same contract amount for the last three years. He said other discussions with the attorney had been regarding an increase for this year. The figure that had been discussed was $86,000 per year for full-time representation.

When the topic went to discussion, Alderwoman Jonie Tibbs said she felt the attorney presence at workshop meetings was important, but she could see that during voting sessions the attorney might not always need to be present.

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Alderman David Wilmert asked if there was a reason Bill Bates wants to leave, and Snyder said he believed it was a matter of him wanting more free time.

Wilmert's concern was more about losing the historical knowledge that the senior Bates has. The comment was also made that with the "Senator," aka Buzz Busby, absent, Bill Bates was the council's next-best resource on past proceedings and events.

Anderson did remind the council, though, that the contract is still with Woods & Bates and would include Bill, just as it now includes Blinn.

Wilmert still wondered if Bill would be willing to stay on for a couple more years if the city would agree that he didn't have to attend every meeting.

Alderman Tom O'Donohue said he understood Wilmert's concerns, but it was not like the city was losing Bill Bates. He commented that it would be a transition to someone new, but at the same time, someone who does know the city. It would not be like hiring a completely new attorney, plus Bill Bates will still be there.

Another concern was the unexpected. There are occasions when people come to the council without forewarning with an issue of importance. The city council relies on the city attorney to assist them in responding to such situations within the limits of the law.

Tibbs wondered if in those cases, people weren't really required to give advance notice that they planned on coming to the council. Snyder said as it stands now, no, they do not have to give advance notice, but that could be discussed and changed if needed.

Treasurer Chuck Conzo also weighed in, saying that Blinn is experienced with the city. Conzo agreed with O'Donohue that the experience would still be there, not only in Bill Bates, but also in the fact that Blinn has done a lot of work for the city already.

Conzo also wondered who would decide which three meetings per month the attorney should attend. Snyder said it had been discussed that the attorney would not be needed at the second voting meeting of the month. He said it could be drawn into the contract, but could also stipulate there might be exceptions if the council determined an attorney needed to be present for a particular session.

At the end of the discussion, it appeared that the city would accept the new official assignment of Blinn Bates as their attorney of record and Woods & Bates as the contracted law firm at $78,000 per year and 36 meetings per year.


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