Selah City Council members sent a contract for the city’s first full-time attorney back to the drawing board Tuesday night.
Council members voted 5-2 to direct City Administrator Don Wayman to renegotiate the contract with D.R. “Rob” Case after council members raised questions about a severance package, the fact that the post was not advertised as open and concerns about how Case would balance the city’s legal needs with his current law clients.
It is expected to be brought back before the council at its Feb. 23 meeting. Wayman warned council members that renegotiating the contract could potentially cause the city to lose Case.
“This is the deal he will accept,” Wayman said. “If we modify from that (contract) greatly, I have no confidence that he would accept the modifications that are being proposed.”
Councilman Russ Carlson, who joined with Kevin Wickenhagen in rejecting the motion, said he wanted to see the position opened to outside applicants since the city has changed the job parameters.
The contract presented to the council Tuesday would pay Case $160,000 a year, as well as health benefits and participation in the Public Employees’ Retirement System.
Wayman said Case’s position was not advertised or open to outside applicants because Case had already gone through a competitive process when he was hired in 2019, and that his contract contained a clause that he would be offered a full-time position if the city was satisfied with his performance.
“This was, in many ways, a rehearsal or an audition for his services moving forward,” Wayman said.
Councilwoman Suzanne Vargas said it is important to open the application process to get a wider selection of candidates for the position.
Mayor Sherry Raymond said hiring Case is in the city’s best interest.
“Since Rob has been here, he has been our best choice,” Raymond said. “Rob was our best choice (in September 2019) and he is our best choice now.”
But council members had concerns about the severance package that the contract would give Case. If he were to be fired without cause before Dec. 31, 2030, Case would receive a sum equal to six months of salary.
By contrast, police Chief Dan Christman’s contract only provides a five-year period where he would receive a six-month severance package.
Instead, Councilman Kevin Wickenhagen proposed shortening the period to five years and giving Case three months’ pay should he be let go.
But Wayman and former Yakima County Superior Court Judge Doug Federspiel, who reviewed the contract for the city, said a larger severance package can either prevent a lawsuit or put the city in a better position when the court sees that a generous package was offered.
Federspiel noted that Case would be taking a risk by becoming a full-time attorney since he would not have other clients he could fall back on.
Carlson countered that people take risks like that whenever they take a new job.
Carlson was also concerned about a provision that would allow Case to continue working with some of the clients from his private practice to resolve their cases, a process he said could take Case’s attention and time away from city matters.
“There are only so many hours in a day, so many hours in a week you can work on a particular case before it becomes detrimental,” Carlson said. “How do we know we are getting 100 percent (from Case)?”
The contract would preclude Case from taking on additional outside work but allows him to finish up the cases. Case said he had no timetable for how long it would take, noting COVID-related delays in the court system and possible appeals, but he said he would still give the city its required 40 hours a week.
“I don’t see why it matters, as long as the city gets the requisite number of hours from the person who serves it, whether the hours are done at 2 p.m. or 2 a.m., and it is competently done,” Case said.
Carlson said it is not unusual for an attorney to farm out outstanding cases in cases of retirement or when elected as a judge.
Daniel Callahan, a Selah resident, urged council members to solicit applications from other attorneys, as the city may find a lawyer who would work for less, and might do a better job than Case.
“Perhaps the city could look for an attorney who could keep the city from getting sued,” Callahan said in a comment that was read at the council meeting. “After all, there have been three lawsuits filed against the city.”