The Moab City Council approved a $65,481 purchasing exception Jan. 10 for legal services related to Internal Affairs (IA) investigations, “employment matters,” and GRAMA (Government Records Access and Management Act) related services. During the same meeting, the city council decided to table awarding an employment legal services contract to the same Salt Lake City firm — Parr, Brown, Gee, and Loveless — saying a more “in depth” conversation is necessary about the need for such services at the city.
The Jan. 10 payment is not the first the city has made to Parr, Brown, Gee, and Loveless. In September, the council approved a $33,928 purchasing exception for similar employment-related legal advice. In all, the Salt Lake City-based law firm has billed the city $99,409 for services rendered in 2016.
Itemized details of the latest invoices were not released to the public. Rather, the billed amounts were divided into four categories: “General,” “Employment Matters,” “IA [internal affairs investigations],” and “GRAMA.”
“Detailed billings contain specific attorney/client privileged information and are not included in this public packet,” Moab City Recorder Rachel Stenta wrote in a summary to the council. “If the council would like to review the detailed billings, they are available in my office.”
While council member Rani Derasary told The Times-Independent she viewed the detailed bills before the Jan. 10 meeting, others, including Tawny Knutson-Boyd and Kalen Jones, did not.
Knutson-Boyd said she felt comfortable voting on the purchasing exception with the information Stenta provided in the summary as well as information learned through an assessment meeting with Parr, Brown, Gee, and Loveless.
“I feel confident that I know what I’m paying for,” Knutson-Boyd said.
But council member Heila Ershadi made it clear she would not vote for the $65,000 purchasing exception without more information. Even after viewing the unredacted invoice, Ershadi told The Times-Independent her concerns about the services rendered are not addressed.
“I had a chance to look through the unredacted document and it answered some of my questions but not all,” Ershadi told The Times-Independent. “ ... It gives the ‘what’ but not the ‘how’ ... Especially with it being so much money and staff recommending to hire legal counsel on a per-hour basis, I need to know that they’re doing work the way we want them to and we are communicating our expectations clearly.”
Stenta did provide a public summary of the invoice’s contents, which showed the greatest expense — $35,876 — was for legal consultations related to IA investigations.
Five IA investigations have occurred involving the Moab City Police Department from April to September 2016. Although outside public safety agencies conduct those investigations, the city hired outside legal counsel to limit liability.
“As you are aware, we had several internal affairs investigations in 2016,” Stenta said. “During the personnel issues that arose during the course of the investigations, we utilized employment counsel to reduce the city’s future liability and risk exposure.”
Parr, Brown, Gee, and Loveless billed the city a total of $59,357 for IA-related legal expenses in 2016.
Stenta said the recent billing of $25,527 for “employment matters” was connected to the city’s decision to place former Moab City Manager Rebecca Davidson on paid administrative leave in mid-September.
Other invoiced expenses included $2,724 in “general employment counsel” costs, and $7,961 in GRAMA-related services.
“GRAMA requests are coming in daily and we have a couple of intensive requests that we’re still working on that require legal review, one of which I think [City Attorney Chris McAnany] is working on as well,” Stenta told the council Jan. 10.
Stenta told The Times-Independent that Moab city has spent approximately $20,000 on GRAMA requests in 2016, including attorney costs and staff hours.
Requests include those from The Times-Independent, Grand County Council member Chris Baird, Jim Stiles, publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr, Davidson, the Entrada development, and reporter Stephen Dark of Salt Lake City Weekly.
Costs from the GRAMA requests submitted by the Entrada development, Davidson, and Dark are yet to be determined, according to documents Stenta provided to The Times-Independent.
Stenta told the council Jan. 10 that hiring a law firm for employment counsel “should minimize future purchasing exceptions.”
Interim Moab City Manager David Everitt said the council directed staff to draft a request for proposal (RFP) for specialized employment legal services.
“Given the uptick in employment issues the last half of 2016, the council requested an RFP for specialized legal services in the area,” Everitt said. “And sometimes when these services are needed, it’s a ton of hours at once, which is problematic for our city attorney to handle on his own in a timely manner.”
City staff recommended a “pay as you go,” as-needed contract with Parr, Brown, Gee, and Loveless, at a billing rate at $370 per hour. In its RFP, the firm offered several “courtesy discounts,” as well as staff training days in GRAMA compliance and employment-related issues such as harassment and unlawful discrimination.
But the council voted unanimously to table the issue on Jan. 10.
Ershadi voiced concerns about hiring a firm on an as-needed basis.
“With an hourly rate, with lawyers coming in, this could get huge especially given some of the issues that we’re facing,” Ershadi said, suggesting it might be “cheaper” to hire a lawyer for a salaried position.
Everitt said the need for employment legal services at Moab city in 2016 was exceptional, but he agreed that future needs cannot be predicted.
“I think you’ve had an extraordinary year with regard to the need for employment-related legal services,” he said. “I certainly would hope and predict that you will not have quite as extraordinary of a need in the years to come. But you’re right, it’s not a guarantee that that would be the case.”
Ershadi said she would like council to have a more “in-depth” conversation about employment attorneys, adding that she has concerns related to the issue that she preferred not be discussed in a public setting.
“I don’t really want to get into it right now, but I have concerns ... about the ways things have been handled in the past and I think we need to get really clear about what has happened and what’s going to happen going forward,” she said.
Everitt encouraged her to address those concerns in the near future.
“I hope you can share those ... getting specifics from you about what your concerns are is very important,” he said.