City attorney role discussed by council
January 31, 2019 | View PDF
The City Council held a special workshop last week to discuss the how the city handles its legal requirements and use of an out-of-town city attorney, as well as revamping of the council’s informal advisory committees.
Stephen Deitsch, of the law firm of Best, Best & Krieger, has been the city’s attorney for 28 years, and the Ontario-based firm – which specializes in municipal law -- has been representing the city for 30 years.
When the meeting began, questions were asked about the structure of the city’s charter in which the City Attorney is involved.
Councilmember Manual Garcia asked Deitsch if he was the attorney for the council or if he worked for the city manager.
The city’s charter is unusual in that city attorney is considered a department head, who reports to the city manager, Scott Hurlbert. Garcia asked, “Just hypothetically, if we had an issue with a project or something, what would you tell us if the city manager was involved in it? Would it be a conflict of interest?”
“Absolutely not,” Deitsch responded. “Ultimately, I work for the five elected officials, which is the City Council and the community of Shafter. There would be no conflict of interest.”
Mayor Gilbert Alvarado said the relationship “came down to a matter of trust” for him. “I just don’t feel comfortable with this.”. He said that they might feel more comfortable with someone local.
Asked what other options might be, Deitsch told the council that if they did not like the way the charter was set up, they could wait until 2020, when the charter would normally be reviewed, and propose changes then, or if they did not want to wait, they could form a Charter Review Committee and propose changes out of that group’s findings. Deitsch said that any proposed changes would have to come before the people for a vote in that case.
Councilmember Garcia noted that the city attorney was not present at all council meetings. “If it was up to me, I would have you guys at every meeting, including back in closed session meetings,” he said.
Deitsch told the council that their attendance at meetings was “not their call”; it was a cost-saving measure for the city to not have them there unless they are needed for a specific issue. “If we are wanted at every meeting, we can do that. Whatever is needed we can work out,” he said.
Apparently, there is concern over how the charter addresses the role of the city attorney. Council members have suggested they do not have an attorney that would be representing them regarding every issue, even internal issues.
“So, if we came to you for advice, this would be considered under the attorney-client privilege?” Councilmember Cesar Lopez asked Deitsch.
“Absolutely, it would be covered under attorney-client privilege,” he replied.
There was issue at the first City Council meeting of the year, when Alvarado was voted to become mayor, and when Mayor Pro Tem Cesar Lopez was named. A representative for the Kern County Council of Governments was to be named, and Councilmember – and former mayor – Cathy Prout said that she would like to continue her service there. Mayor Alvarado said that he would be interested in the position himself. An informal agreement could not be made, so ultimately a vote took place, naming Alvarado as the representative. Mayor Pro Tem Lopez mentioned this to City Attorney Deitsch. “If there had been the city attorney at the meeting, we would have known what to do, and we wouldn’t have ended up looking bad in the newspaper.”
The Council decided to hold another workshop to discuss the matter in the near future. Until then, it was decided that the city attorney would be present for all City Council meetings until further notice.
Next up for discussion were the ad-hoc committees that are filled by council members regarding different departments. For example, there is a committee for the Shafter Recreation and School Board. There is another one for the Shafter Recreation and Cemetery District. A total of eight were mentioned in the meeting.
Mayor Alvarado commented that there were too many committees and that they overlap in their roles. He also mentioned that some of the members have been on committees for an extended time and the members should be rotated regularly, giving everyone a chance to serve on a committee that they may be interested in.
It was decided that there would be a total reorganization of the committees, including the number and composition of them, and will filling the slots with members interested in specific topics.
Another item was the implementation of the compensation schedule that the City enacted beginning in January. The City Council members are now receiving a stipend for their service. The mayor receives $300 monthly, and the council members receive $200. When the compensation schedule was being implemented, issues came up with the way the city’s payroll system dealt with the change. Under law, the council members are now considered part-time employees, and this changes the way the system handles reimbursements for expenses such as travel.
Adjustments had to be made to the system to work this out, and this delayed the regular payment to council members.
Mayor Pro Tem Lopez asked the City Attorney Deitsch if he gets a copy of all of the agendas for meetings and why they didn’t catch this issue regarding this problem. It was explained that the problem was logistical, not legal.
The next regular council meeting will be on Tuesday, Feb. 5, at City Hall.