We write to express concern regarding recent reports that Mamaroneck Village is redefining the position of Village Attorney.
We are longtime Village residents and practicing attorneys. In 2006, at the request of then Trustee Thomas Murphy, we studied the Village’s legal needs and costs, and issued a report to the Village Board. We recommended specific steps the Village could take to more effectively manage its legal affairs, and thus lower costs and avoid adverse litigation outcomes. At the time, Mamaroneck had been engaged in several highly publicized, contentious and unsuccessful lawsuits, and incurred $1.3 million in legal fees in one year.
A core recommendation was the hiring of a full-time chief legal officer, to serve as Village Attorney and oversee its legal affairs. We recommended that, just as countless corporations (private, public, for-profit and non-profit) do when hiring a general counsel, the Village should require its attorney to be a full-time employee and not be affiliated with a firm seeking or receiving legal business from the Village.
A Village Attorney was hired in 2007, but that person was recently let go. The proposed contract with the new Village Attorney has not been made public, but we understand the appointee would not be a full-time employee and that there is a proposal to eliminate requirements that the Village Attorney be a Village employee. It is unclear if the new Village Attorney would be prohibited from also acting as counsel in particular situations on a fee basis.
We are concerned that this approach could effectively gut the purposes of having a Village Attorney. The idea of a Village Attorney was to have a salaried employee, who would handle most matters directly (and avoid paying fees to a law firm) and in cases requiring outside counsel, would provide oversight, negotiate terms and monitor performance and bills.
When we made our proposal, this was a change for Mamaroneck Village. At that time, the Village Attorney was a member of a firm that was often retained by the Village. Thus, he was not in a position to effectively oversee the firm, to which he owed allegiance. Our proposal sought to ensure there would be an employee overseeing Mamaroneck’s legal affairs whose sole obligation would be to the Village and its taxpayers. Only this, we believed, would provide the checks and balances so that taxpayers’ funds would be spent in the most cost-effective way.
If the new Village Attorney is not a Village employee and may have his or her law firm retained by the Village, that would create the same potential for conflict that prompted our recommended changes in 2006.
The political composition of the Village Board changed in November, but that should not be relevant to the role of the Village Attorney. Our point remains: Mamaroneck and its taxpayers will benefit from having a chief legal officer who owes allegiance solely to the Village. In our view, that is the case regardless of who controls the Village Board.
Ira Millstein, Eric Rieder, John Romans
Village of Mamaroneck