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Two charter changes: No.

Byline: The Register-Guard

The Eugene City Council placed eight proposed city charter amendments on the November ballot. Six are benign or beneficial proposals that were discussed in an editorial Tuesday. The remaining two deserve rejection.

Measure 20-70 - Eugene's charter draws a strong line of separation between the City Council and the city manager. The council sets city policy, and the manager implements that policy directly or through department personnel. The charter also precludes members of the City Council from trying to influence - directly or indirectly - the city manager's prerogatives regarding hiring, firing, promoting or demoting city employees.

This measure arises out of the tumultuous tenure of former City Manager Vicki Elmer. Under her relatively brief watch, the city lost several key department heads. The council felt it had been left out of the loop as to why such highly regarded personnel were leaving. For reasons that defy common sense, Elmer apparently refused, or just plain failed, to notify the council about some of the departures and the reasons behind them.

Fast forward to Measure 20-70, which would mandate that the manager report to the council the reasons for certain personnel actions involving department heads. The report would be required any time the city manager appointed, fired or accepted the resignation of a department head.

While open communication is essential, this measure risks blurring the line between the council and the manager. Logically, the city manager would keep the council informed about major departmental personnel changes, but to mandate a formal report would nudge the council away from its policy-making role and move it too close to involving itself in matters the charter rightly insists are the city manager's sole responsibility.

The council/manager form of government has served Eugene well. Measure 20-70 could weaken the separation of policy-making from policy implementation. Measure 20-70 deserves a no vote.

Measure 20-71 - This proposal would require the city manager to hire an in-house attorney, subject to confirmation by the City Council. For the past 31 years, Eugene has contracted with a private law firm to handle its legal work. Currently, that firm is Harrang Long Gary Rudnick PC. The firm is large, broad-based and has served the city well.

Supporters of Measure 20-71 argue that an in-house attorney would be cheaper than an outside law firm, but there's no guarantee of savings. A study conducted a few years ago showed that Eugene's per capita legal costs were only slightly higher than those of Salem, Portland and Springfield.

A large, private firm with varied legal specialists can offer a much broader range of legal services than could an in-house attorney. And even with an in-house lawyer on hand, the city would still have to hire out much of its legal work because of the complexity and range of legal issues that arise in a city of Eugene's size and culture. In other words, the city would end up paying for both an in-house lawyer and a private law firm.

Nor would an in-house city attorney provide more continuity of service on legal issues facing the city, as supporters contend. Legal cases, whether handled by an in-house attorney or by a private firm, generate their own records and their own histories that would be retained, regardless of who represented the city on legal issues. So the continuity argument is weak.

The proponents of Measure 20-71 also seek to avoid potential conflicts of interest and generate better communication between city officials and the city's in-house lawyer. While a large law firm such as Harrang Long might occasionally have clients that have beefs with the city, Harrang Long has worked to minimize even the appearance, much less the fact, of conflict. Moreover, an outside firm is far less likely to be influenced in its legal advice by internal city politics than would an in-house attorney. One of the big advantages of having an outside private law firm is that it insulates the city's legal advice from personal or political agendas.

The current practice of relying on a large, balanced outside law firm has served the city well for 31 years; there is no reason to change. Voters should oppose Measure 20-71.
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Title Annotation:In-house attorney, mandatory report go too far; Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Oct 10, 2002
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