Sammamish city attorney gets raise, no-bid contract
December 22, 2012
By Caleb Heeringa
New: Dec. 22, 12:16 p.m.
For the second year in a row, the city’s contract for legal services went from being a rubber stamp to an issue of contention among city councilmembers.
At their Dec. 11 meeting, the council ended up approving a new contract for legal representation with municipal law firm Kenyon Disend that will mean a 13.5 percent increase in payments over the next two years. The contract was approved on a 5-1 vote, with Councilman Ramiro Valderrama once again the lone dissenter.
Valderrama objected to approving such a large increase when the city ties all the rest of its annual wage increases to cost of living indicators and played a hard line with wage increases for another contractor – Eastside Fire & Rescue.
That agency’s board, which includes two Sammamish councilmembers, negotiated a three year contract that provides for a 2 percent wage increase per year. In recent months city councilmembers have threatened to pull out of EFR over rising personnel costs and other inequities in how the agency is funded.
Valderrama added that the city should consider putting the legal services contract out to bid to see if they could get a better deal from another firm and objected to city staff’s decision to leave the contract on the meeting’s consent agenda, where routine and noncontroversial bills are typically approved all at once.
“I don’t believe any sole source, non-competitive bid should be put on the consent agenda,” he said.
Deputy City Manager Lyman Howard and several councilmembers defended the action and said that the city’s relationship with its attorney was different than your typical government contract. Bruce Disend, one of the firm’s partners, has served as Sammamish’s legal counsel since before the city incorporated.
Howard said Kenyon Disend still charges the city well below the market rate for legal counsel. The contract calls for the city to pay $174,024 for the year in 2013 and $186,600 in 2014 in exchange for Disend’s attendance at council meetings, review of city ordinances, contracts and resolutions and on-call advice for councilmembers and city staff. Disend bills at an hourly rate of $270 for any extra time spent representing the city in lawsuits.
Disend serves as the city attorney for Duvall and Medina as well and charges the same hourly rate, though his contracts with those cities vary based on workload.
“Over the last 13 years, we’ve enjoyed a special relationship with Kenyon Disend at below-market costs,” Howard said. “It’s a great value for the services provided – they’re a leader in municipal law and well-qualified and informed.”
Howard also pointed out that the city’s total legal budget, which also encompasses its bill for prosecutor Lynn Moberly, is still well below that of comparable cities. Sammamish’s 2014 legal budget is slated to be $348,600, while Issaquah currently pays $430,000 and Redmond spends more than $1.74 million a year.
Cities like Auburn and Kirkland have city attorneys on staff and pay well over $1 million a year for legal services. Several councilmembers noted that those comparisons are apples and oranges, since many of those cities have double or triple the amount of crime that Sammamish has.
Councilwoman Nancy Whitten, an attorney by trade, vouched for Disend’s hourly rates being reasonable, saying that she charged more for her time professionally, and she rejected the idea of opening up a bidding war for a professional service that’s so vital to a city.
“You wouldn’t want to go out to bid for a dentist to fix your teeth,” she said. “I don’t want to be penny wise and pound foolish.”
Valderrama questioned the contract increase, which is much higher than the 3.2 percent cost of living increase Disend’s firm received last year. Howard said this year’s increase – 7.9 percent in 2013 and 5.5 percent in 2014 – was negotiated down from the firm’s first request.
“They looked at what other firms were getting and realized they were undercompensated,” Howard said in a later interview.
Disend, who was present for the discussion, had no comment. When the issue came up last year, he told the council he was “disgusted” by the public questioning of the contract and said about half of the firm’s 15 employees were Sammamish residents.
Deputy Mayor John James said in a later interview he was “disappointed” by the large contract increase, particularly after city staff compared Disend to a city employee last year in justifying the contract’s cost of living increase.
“Now it comes back with an 8 percent increase followed by a 5 percent increase,” he said. “It’s a little disingenuous.”
But James said he voted for it anyway because he didn’t want to send a message that Disend did not have the council’s confidence as he negotiates on behalf of the city with developers working on the Ace Hardware proposal.
“There’s no question that Bruce Disend is a good attorney, I just think it’s also (the City Council’s) job to make sure we’re getting the best service for the best price,” James said.
Reach reporter Caleb Heeringa at firstname.lastname@example.org or 392-6434, ext. 247.