Fresno

City Council restricts ability to hire lawyers for executive team

The City Council has tried to clip the wings of the executive branch ever since Fresno moved from a council-manager system to a strong mayor form of government in 1997.

We got to see one such effort at the March 21 council meeting.

On tap was a proposed resolution sponsored by the City Attorney’s Office. That right there was a signal of council-Administration conflict. The City Attorney is hired and fired by the council. He’s not bringing anything to the council in public unless it already has strong council support. That no council member wanted his/her name attached to the resolution as sponsor speaks volumes about the sensitivity of the issue at hand.

The item was titled “A Resolution of the Council of the City of Fresno, California Concerning Hiring Outside Counsel in Personnel Matters.”

The one-page resolution says the City Council, per the City Charter, is in charge of all legal matters. Only the City Attorney and the council have the authority to hire outside lawyers.

City Hall has a large and talented staff of attorneys. But Fresno’s municipal corporation is involved in many complex matters. It’s inevitable that specialized legal counsel is needed throughout the year.

The Strong Mayor and the city manager are at the center of most of those complex matters of governance. But, as the resolution notes, it’s the legislative branch that controls the City Attorney’s Office and the hiring of legal experts.

This separation of powers briefly rose to the level of public scrutiny several years ago when then-Council Members Lee Brand (now our Mayor) and Andreas Borgeas (now a state Senator) were exploring possible Charter amendments. One of the questions: Does the Mayor/Administration need its own source of legal counsel, outside the control of the City Council? As I recall, the question died a quiet death.

The key part of the March 21 resolution is this: “Unless and until a lawsuit is filed naming City employees or officials for which the employee or official could have personal liability for a personnel claim, contract counsel shall not be provided at City expense to represent City employees and officials for claims related to personnel matters without Council approval.”

The March 21 debate from the dais was quick but frank. Said City Manager Wilma Quan to City Attorney Doug Sloan: “Doug, do you mind clarifying for us – do you think this proposed resolution conflicts with any of the provisions in any of our executive contracts?”

Sloan: “No, it doesn’t. Pursuant to those contracts, with the Charter, the city is required to defend and indemnify claims against city employees that involve the course and scope of their employment. But that’s when there’s a lawsuit. When there’s simply an investigation, that would not necessarily apply. But nonetheless, even if required, our office could be there. We don’t necessarily have to hire outside counsel.” (My emphasis.)

Quan: “So, the Administration actually feels that approval of this resolution is, in essence, telling our unrepresented city employees (Administration officials and top-level managers) that you do not value them enough to hire expert outside counsel in issues that pertain to the day-to-day performance of their jobs. So, I really do have heartburn with this resolution and would ask Council to consider my comments before they approve it.”

Quan said she was referring to approximately 140 employees who aren’t part of a union.

Quan’s comments got nothing but silence from the five council members on the dais – Council President Steve Brandau and Council Members Esmeralda Soria, Luis Chavez, Garry Bredefeld and Nelson Esparza.

Council Members Paul Caprioglio and Miguel Arias were absent.

Finally, Brandau said: “All right. I don’t see any council members punched up.”

The resolution was approved on a 5-0 vote.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.