The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the addition of a Legal Assistant I or II position to the Office of County Counsel and directed department head James Reichle to work with human resources to develop a job description for an Administrative Assistant/Paralegal III position at a Tuesday, Dec. 1, meeting.
The supervisors also seemed to react favorably to the idea of replacing the current Paralegal III position with this new one at another meeting in the near future.
The actions taken and accompanying discussion marked the first major expansion in the county counsel department’s budget since Reichle became the department head in August.
Reichle’s hiring and appointment to the position represented a return to the county’s previous in-house style of legal advice, replacing a short-lived experiment with an outside firm, Cota and Cole.
The firm’s monthly bills and additional charges for legal services beyond those covered by its retainer quickly grew and spiraled out of control as company and county realized they hadn’t accurately predicted the expenses that would be incurred on either side in the ill-fated relationship.
That union ended when the firm’s projected yearly retainer reached $420,000, while additional funds were still being spent on outside legal counsel for services like personnel negotiations.
By contrast, Reichle’s contract calls for an annual salary of $144,000, rising to $168,000 by the fourth year.
The department head told the board the Legal Assistant II position had an entry level salary of $27,456.
He added Administrative Assistant/Paralegal III position would have an entry-level salary of $39,790, a change that is likely to have negligible effect on the budget as the currently filled Paralegal III position has an entry-level salary of $39,492.
The current Paralegal III position has a salary ceiling of around $48,000, which gives some reference point as to the salary the new position, which will be filled by the current Paralegal III, a longtime county employee, will actually be paid.
The Paralegal III position was also in place when the contract with the Cota and Cole firm was in place, making no difference in any expenses comparison.
Even factoring in benefits for the other two positions, it seems unlikely the department’s personnel expenses will extend far beyond half the yearly retainer cost from the farmed-out legal counsel approach.
In his background information on the request, Reichle explained his department had taken on several new tasks since he took it over.
He listed county personnel issues, grievances, labor negotiation, liability claims, insurance renewals and supervision of workers’ compensation as examples.
Many of these functions used to be handled by outside legal firms or county general fund positions that have been scaled back or eliminated.
The background document also said a new Administrative Assistant/Paralegal III position would be responsible for managing liability claims, the county counsel budget, insurance renewals data, supervising the law librarian and legal assistant, and balancing the office’s workload.
The materials added that the current state of the office dictated the Paralegal III undertake those tasks by working out of class without proper reorganization or compensation.
Reichle compared the position he wished to create to the county district attorney’s Administrative Assistant/Assistant Public Administrator position.
Reichle argued his department could handle the workload it had been assigned if these changes were made.
He admitted it was difficult to talk about adding a position during tough economic times but contended his department would still work without positions like a deputy county counsel, which the department had before the Cota and Cole experiment.
The attorney reasoned the expenses of the deputy county counsel position and outside firms that handled things like union negotiations far exceeded the costs he was asking for the county to incur.
“I just think that this is a worthy experiment because the only other option is to go back to the two-attorney role which is another viable option, but I think it’s a more expensive one,” he concluded.
Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sherrie Thrall agreed, “At one point the county counsel’s office had the counsel and two deputies. It wasn’t that long ago, and they did not have the workload that we have now given you.”
She added, “This is something that I support because I think that the major cost to this county over the last two and a half to three years that I’ve been on the board has been in legal losses, and I think that you’ve done a yeoman’s job of bringing us forward, of getting us some procedures and policies and forms, and streamlining and everything else you could do.
“Much as I know that we’re in financial destitution and we’ve laid people off, I think this is a position that we need to approve in order to protect the county from future liability, so it’s something that I support.”
Supervisor Lori Simpson agreed, adding that the county needed to make these adjustments so the county counsel office could remain open on a more constant basis, allowing more access to the public.
Simpson also referenced the fact Reichle had the H1N1 flu recently. “If you’re sick who’s going to replace you when we need a counsel here?”
The attorney replied he had been thinking about that issue too and there had to be someone in the county who would agree to make court appearances and other emergency judgments for “a fairly nominal sum.”
He added he thought a backup arrangement could be made with Sierra and Nevada counties’ attorneys who he has known for a long time.
Reichle said the attorneys could probably agree to cover for each other on rare occasions when necessary.
Supervisor Ole Olsen said vacation time would also have to be covered.
Reichle said in the past that hadn’t been an issue because he had been able to schedule court appearances around any dates when he wasn’t available.
Before the board approved the two personnel requests, County Administrative Officer Jack Ingstad gave his blessings to the decision as well.
“While I understand the concern about hiring at a time that we’re laying off employees, I feel we have to do what is necessary to make Jim successful and he’s had a chance now to review his operation and make a recommendation and I think it would be inappropriate for us to stand in the way of his recommendations.
“I agree with the chairman that we’ve had so many losses because of bad legal representation and so I support what he’s asking for,” he concluded.
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