OV legal department trying to keep up - The Explorer: Import

OV legal department trying to keep up

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Posted: Tuesday, May 31, 2005 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:50 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

June 1, 2005 - Oro Valley Town Attorney Melinda Garrahan remembers a day a few weeks ago when she arrived at the office in the morning, put her belongings on her desk and didn't sit down until sometime around 7:30 p.m., when she called her husband to tell him she was finally going home.

She said attorneys learn how to have those kinds of days, but in a town the size of Oro Valley, with a legal department as small as it is, there is certainly more than enough for anyone to do on any given day, Garrahan said.

"There is never a day when we are sitting here waiting for something to do," she said. "It's more that we have a list of tasks and we are constantly juggling the more urgent things and trying to stay up on those."

While other town departments have steadily grown during the last decade, one department that has stayed pretty much the same is the town's legal department.

According to the department's supervisors, Garrahan and Town Prosecutor Tobin Sidles, the growth has started to catch up with them, and this year, they are asking for new positions to help subdue the growing pains.

When Sidles was hired in 1990, the prosecutor's department consisted of him and a part-time secretary. At the time, the police department had 28 police officers. Since then, the police department has grown to 87 commissioned officers, but the prosecutor's staff has remained the same.

Sidles said this means more cases are coming through Oro Valley's court each year, but there is no new help in the legal department to process those cases.

Sidles, who wrote this year's budget requests while the town was searching for a new town attorney, has asked for an assistant town prosecutor, a file clerk and a victim's rights coordinator to beef up the staff in the criminal division.

"I could really use the help," he told the town council members during a special budget session in May to hear justification for the request. Town Manager Chuck Sweet has recommended adding both the assistant prosecutor and the new file clerk to the staff.

"It's certainly an important need," said Garrahan of the prosecuting staff request. "The police department has added officers, we're processing more cases, it's been going this way for years now."

She said that without adding legal staff to keep up with this growth, two detrimental things happen: the police officers don't think their cases are getting fair attention and victim's of crimes think they are getting short shrift.

Garrahan said both are legitimate concerns. And she said an understaffed legal department affects the morale in the police department.

"They're working hard. They like to see their cases handled aggressively," she said.

While it's nothing like Law and Order, the town's court handles thousands of cases each year, from the most common offense of driving with a suspended license to other traffic law violations, DUIs and assaults. A typical day for Sidles starts in court at about 8:30 a.m., where he handles arraignments, pretrials, plea offers, motion hearings, and bench and jury trials. When not in court, he is kept busy processing paperwork, contacting victims and meeting with police.

While an assistant prosecutor is needed, Sidles said his highest-priority request in this year's budget is a file clerk.

"We're trying to handle everyone who comes in, and we can't keep up with all the paper work," he said.

One position asked for, but not recommended to the council for approval by Sweet, is a victim's rights coordinator.

Sidles explained in a subsequent interview that this position would help the town fulfill its legal obligation to keep victims of crimes informed about each step of the legal process as their cases make their way through court.

Councilwoman Conny Culver asked during the special session if it was possible to use volunteer victim's rights coordinators, saying she had heard of volunteers being used in other states.

Sidles said that it is possible to use volunteers, but that Arizona has a law holding the prosecutor personally liable if something were to happen with that victim, and he would feel more comfortable knowing that person was a paid staff member whom he could have some authority over.

"I don't want to trust a volunteer for something I am personally liable for," he said.

He also said later that volunteers often counsel victims about where they can receive support, and give them information about resources available to them, however, there's still a need for someone who can legally advise those victims.

While Garrahan said the civil side of the legal department also could use some extra help, she said that this year "I promised Tobin, you get the shot at the prosecutor," because he has been requesting new staff for several years to no avail.

Garrahan came to Oro Valley just as the budget sessions were getting underway. However, she said she immediately saw needs in the department, and did add some requests from the civil law division.

She is asking that Civil Attorney Joe Andrews have his position reclassified so he will become the chief civil deputy attorney, with a $7,500 raise this fiscal year, and that the town bring on a new civil attorney in January, halfway through the fiscal year, at a cost of $25,000. These amounts are for the last six months of this budget year, and, if the positions are approved, the annual amounts will need to be OK'd for the next budget year.

Garrahan said the reclassification will help recognize Andrews as the asset to the town she believes he is.

"He has taken on serious, experienced attorney responsibilities for some time now," Garrahan said about her reason for wanting to promote Andrews. She said he has "grown with the town" and knows a lot of its history, and she hopes that if she can bring on a new civil attorney they can find another person who can start out with the town and grow with it.

By having new hires in place to help take care of the existing legal issues facing the town, the legal department hopes to begin taking preventative steps, such as offering more training, by both the civil and criminal division, to other town departments, keeping town staff up-to-date on new laws and changes in existing laws.

In the future, Garrahan hopes also to upgrade the technology in the department so the staff is using programs used in other legal offices such as optical scanning and electronic files.

She said as it is now the office keeps paper files, which cannot be easily located or shared. With several different town attorneys over the years using their own systems, the filing has been done in several different ways.

Garrahan said that since she has been with the town she has looked at the systems the paralegals and secretary have in place and thinks the organization is efficient.

"They've squeezed about all the give out of those positions," she said. However, she said that by using some industry software to create mirrored paper and electronic files she hopes to dramatically improve efficiency.

Sidles said the town also has seen an increase in the outside counsel services it has used in past years.

"There has been a fairly large rise in civil litigation," he told the council, which is why he requested $150,000 for outside legal services in the 2005-06 budget. Sweet is recommending approving $100,000.

Tobin said he has tried to cut costs in this area by telling people not take certain calls or perform certain research.

Sweet said the town also is hoping to cut that area of the budget by having a new, experienced town attorney on staff and with some of the other help that will be coming in if the council adopts his recommendations.

Garrahan explained that as the department works now all civil litigation gets moved to outside attorneys.

This is because the current staff does not have the time, support staff or organizational setup to handle major litigation in-house.

Sidles agreed, adding that, logistically, the town does not have enough filing space to handle a big case.

Garrahan said people will always sue the town, and it is not in the town's best interest to settle those cases most of the time. She said one reason is that the town often needs an answer to the legal questions that come up through litigation so it will know what to do if that question comes up again.

As an example, she cited the recent litigation with the Arizona political committee Stop Oro Valley Outrageous Giveaways, which sued the town for the right to refer an economic development agreement to a public vote. The court was asked to decided whether the agreement was an administrative act that was not referable or a legislative act that was referable. The appeals court decided it was legislative.

"The town needed that answer, all the municipalities in the state needed that answer," she said.

She also said that if the town settled some litigation it would set a precedent for anyone else looking to sue. If the town wanted to get rid of a bad employee, for example, and decided to offer him or her a settlement to leave, it could then be in the position of having to offer the next troublesome employee the same deal.

For these reasons, the town often litigates any lawsuits to the end rather than settling. In the last year, the town saw a number of cases, which cost it about $88,000 in outside legal services.

Garrahan said that, while the town cannot predict with total accuracy how many times it will be sued, it can expect at least one or two cases, and can budget accordingly.

She said using this current procedure for handling litigation is "ultimately a Band-Aid," and if the town's attorneys could do at least some of it themselves, it would be much less expensive for the town.

"For what we paid outside counsel on the last couple of cases, it would have been enough to run a large litigation unit for a year," she said.

But until the town can consider moving the work in-house it must put in the structure to support it, Garrahan said, and this year's requests are a step in the right direction.

Councilman Terry Parish advocated that the department get all of the positions Sweet is recommending and also receive the OK to hire an additional paralegal.

He said Sidles' requests are important because the legal department and police department each affect how well the other can do its job.

Culver agreed.

"It's important that we listen to the legal department and their needs and support them," Culver said.

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