The Mountlake Terrace City Council agreed Thursday night to give City Manager Scott Hugill the authority to negotiate a contract with the Issaquah-based law firm of Kenyon Disend to provide city attorney services.
Kenyon Disend and Madrona Law Group were the two finalist firms identified to replace long-time City Attorney Greg Schrag, who is retiring at the end of January. (Schrag had previously notified the city that he would be retiring at the end of 2020, but agreed to a one-month extension of his contract so the city could complete the search process.)
During the council’s work/study session, Hugill explained that both firms were interviewed by a committee of three councilmembers — Erin Murray, Laura Sonmore and Rick Ryan — along with a group of city employees. Hugill and Schrag also interviewed the finalists.
“There was consensus: Both firms were equally qualified — 50/50, on the fence, pretty much it’s the toss of a coin in terms of experience, cost, areas of expertise, depths of staff, response time, billing practices, response times to various last-minute requests — really equal footing,” Hugill said. After speaking with Schrag on Wednesday about both firms, Hugill said he was recommending Kenyon Disend, with firm attorney Hillary Evans assigned to serve the city.
“We are recommending Hillary because I feel that she is simiilar to Greg in her approach, in her reflection of issues and time spent,” Hugill said.
As one of the councilmembers who interviewed both firms, Councilmember Ryan said he would “go with the city manager’s recommendation.” Both firms, Ryan said, “were very highly qualified and it was…a coin toss.”
Councilmember Sonmore said she was suprised that the council was being asked to vote on the matter Thursday night. The council committee got just 30 minutes to hear from each candidate and Sonmore said she would have spent time doing her own reference checks on both firms if she’d realized in advance a vote was coming Thursday night. She also asked about the standard process for hiring a city attorney.
Hugill replied that with professional services contracts like this one, the city doesn’t have to go through a bidding process but instead bases its decisions on references and recommendations. However, it has been many years since the city has hired a city attorney to work with the city council, so it isn’t easy to compare the past process to the current one, he added.
Sonmore also said she wished that the entire council could have seen both interviews. “I think you’d be impressed with both firms,” she said.
Hugill said that because the new city attorney represents a new relationship for the city, the plan is to start with “a shorter-term contract, so we can see how it goes and have the right to terminate that contract before we engage in a longer-term contract.”
Councilmember Bryan Wahl in the past has stated he prefers the city eventually hire an attorney for an in-house position, and he reiterated that stance Thursday night. “My biggest concern with going outside or not bringing somebody in-house instead is cost — particularly cost overruns,” Wahl said. “We have been running into huge cost overruns over the last number of years…and that’s one key area that I think it’s important for us to control the budget going forward.”
Following the discussion, the council unanimously approved a motion to select Kenyon Disend to provide city attorney legal services and to direct the city manager to negotiate a contract for those services — with the contract to be placed on the Jan. 28 work/study session agenda for council action. The reason for a vote on Jan. 28 during what is normally a work session rather than a business meeting, would be to ensure that the firm is in place prior to Schrag’s Jan. 31 contract expiration, Hugill said.
In other business Tuesday, the council:
– Received a tree inventory report from Elby Jones, a Green Cities program manager with non-profit land conservation organization Forterra. The report was a follow-up to a request from the council in August 2019 that city staff partner with Forterra to conduct an urban forest assessment. One of the findings was related to the importance of removing invasive species from the city’s parks to ensure forest health, and councilmembers stressed the importance of ensuring that the city follows up on the report’s recommendations. Jones also talked about developing a community-based stewardship program involving volunteers to assist in removing invasive plants, and explained that Forterra has worked with 15 Puget Sound cities and counties to enhance the health of urban forests. During council discussion about the program, a question was raised about the trees that Sound Transit has agreed to provide, to replace those removed for Lynnwood Link light rail construction, and how that could fit into a future city tree program. Recreation and Parks Director Jeff Betts said that the city is receiving money from Sound Transit to cover tree replacement. The city plans to hire an expert to develop a planting plan for those trees “and really ascertain what trees where would be needed and what makes the most sense,” Betts said. Given the Fonterra report, Betts added that “it’s important to remove the invasives before planting new trees.”
– Agreed to place on the Jan. 19 business meeting consent agenda (a day later due to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday) an interlocal agreement with Snohomish County for jail services. Police Chief Pete Caw explained that in 2020, the county presented to cities using its jail a new interlocal agreement that elminated tiered daily maintenance costs — based on an inmate’s addiction or mental health conditions needs — with a new flat rate. The change will significantly increase overall costs for many cities; for Mountlake Terrace the cost increase will be 51.8%. After further discussion between the county and affected cities, an agreement was reached to spread the cost over the next two years, rather than all at once in 2021, Caw said. While the cost increase is significant, Caw stressed that the police department often looks at alternatives to jail time. “With the exception of mandatory bookings there are many other alternatives to placing people in jail,” Caw said. “That’s often times not the best approach to misdemeanor law enforcement.” Councilmember Murray asked about the option of electronic at-home monitoring as an alternative to jail time. Caw expressed support for implementing such a program and said police staff is looking into it, noting it that electronic monitoring offers many societal benefits because it allows the offender to stay employed and support a family.
– Heard from City Stormwater Program Manager Laura Reed about a proposed five-year interlocal agreement with Snohomish Conservation District, for stormwater pollution prevention curriculum in local elementary schools, and agreed to place it on the council’s Tuesday, Jan. 19 consent agenda for approval.
– Also approved for the Jan. 19 consent agenda, authorizing City Manager Hugill to sign a Snohomish County Solid Waste road mitigation agreement for $200,000 to support 66th Avenue West pavement maintenance from 2021-27. The county payment aims to offset impacts to 66th Avenue West from the hauling of solid waste and recycling material to and from the Southwest Recycling and Transfer Station. The money will be used to help fund the city’s 66th Avenue West pavement reconstruction project, set to start in 2021.
– Reviewed a resolution — to be considered Jan. 19 — to set a March 15 public hearing date for 59th Place West street vacation. The area proposed for vacation, currently the site of the planned temporary parking lot for the Mountlake Terrace Transit Center, is all of 59th Place West lying north of 236th Street Southwest — a cul-de-sac surrounded by eight parcels all abutting the transit center. All of the eight properties are owned by Mill Stream Properties Group LLC, which plans to eventually redevelop it, Osborn said.
– Heard an update from Osborn on the annual process for opening the city’s Comprehensive Plan for possible amendments. Osborn told the council that no formal applications or suggestions were submitted to the city during open public docketing period, which ran from Oct. 14-Nov. 13, 2020. The Planning Commission and the city council may also recommend Comprehensive Plan amendments. However, the Planning Commission has been focused on updates to the city’s development code and will not be submitting any amendments this year, Osborn said. As a result, the city council will discuss during its Jan. 19 business meeting whether it has any amendments to propose, she added.
– Moved to appoint, as part of the Jan. 19 consent agenda, two interim Arts Advisory Commission members: Benjamin Hou to the term expiring June 30, 2021 and Connor Ryan to the term expiring June 30, 2022.
The agenda for the Tuesday, Jan. 19 business meeting can be found here. You can listen in via telephone — the call in number is 1-253-215-8782. Meeting ID (874 1980 7058). Passcode is (01 19 21). To watch the meeting over the internet, follow these steps: 1) Go to https://zoom.us/join; 2) Enter meeting ID (874 1980 7058) and click “join” (you will be prompted to install the Zoom application if you do not already have it); and 3) Enter passcode (01 19 21).
— By Teresa Wippel