Jackson Township Council Candidates Share Their Thoughts on In-House Counseling
Jackson–Jackson Township candidates for council were asked for their opinions on in-house legal counseling, a measure proposed by Raymond Cattonar, seeking to save the township money with legal expenses. Each candidate was asked to respond individually. Jackson is currently represented by Gilmore and Monahan of Toms River.
Here are their answers:
Rob Nixon: I am concerned with the faulty assumptions and inaccurate statements made in the proposal that led to the possibility of a referendum on hiring an in-house attorney for Jackson. The concept of managing our legal bills goes along with cutting government spending that I have supported as a member of the CBAC and as such I have worked to propose various savings options for our legal costs. Unfortunately, the proposal for in-house legal fails to cut actual costs and it focuses more on the opinion of the author than on a proper economic analysis or review of the Township’s legal needs. What is more concerning is that an independent review from outside legal counsel indicates that the proposal is not only drafted to amend the wrong section of the Township code and therefore in violation of the goals the sponsor sold to the public but that the establishment of an in-house lawyer potentially could significantly drive up our legal budget, not cut it. Residents should be concerned about this proposal for several reasons.
First, the proposal will require the hiring of at least one government lawyer and support staff as Township employees. The salary and staff costs for an in-house lawyer(s) and staff, including pension and health benefits, will add employee costs that would challenge the Township legal budget. However, the proposal doesn’t say whether the caseload of the town can be managed by a single lawyer.
Second, under the proposal an in house attorney would have powers to hire any additional lawyers they want without needing to go through the Mayor and Council for approval. This is a real possibility since an attorney representing the Township must have very specific expertise in municipal law, tax policy, employee and management laws, environmental law and numerous other specialties. Attorney’s with that level of experience and expertise will come at a high price in salary and there is no guarantee a single attorney can manage all these issues without an extensive staff and research tools. The proposal gives this single employee vast authority to bypass the Mayor, Council and Business Administrator to hire more lawyers any time they see fit.
Third, the proposal also fails to inform the public that there are certain cases the Township must by law retain outside Legal Counsel (COAH, Planning Board) whose costs are not accounted for in the plan. Fourth, the author of the concept offers no verification that an in-house attorney reduces lawsuits or settlement amounts that the proposer can point to with any accuracy.
Finally, and most importantly, the proposal for an in-house legal team misrepresents the actual costs associated with the concept. It should be troubling to every taxpayer that the proposal requires the Township to provide legal services to the Jackson Board of Education for any reason and without reimbursement to taxpayers. While such an arrangement may not even be legal under the Rules of the Supreme Court, there is no analysis offered to the public as to how many cases the School Board may push onto a Township attorney, how often those cases will require outside counsel to be hired to assist the single attorney called for in the plan and at what additional and unaccounted for costs to the Municipal Budget will these cases inflict.
I support the current approach of capping legal expenses and believe a “not to exceed” arrangement for certain legal actions if maintained properly will result in lower spending on legal bills for the town. However, this improperly written referendum will only drive up our legal bills and build a permanent bureaucracy that we can’t afford.
Ray Cattonar (Also answering for Bonnie Barrington): This answer is simple and a no brainer to us… considering we were the ones that petitioned our Township to pass an ordinance to provide the Township with an in-house legal team rather than outsource our legal needs. At the last Township Council meeting, our council members voted against such an ordinance, despite the fact that we obtained 1000 signatures from all sectors of our Township. These signatures represented a diverse sampling of residents who would like to see cost savings in hopes that it would translate into lower property taxes.
We even created a 17 page study to define the cost savings providing budgets from Howell & Toms River who have had an in-house Legal team for many years. Jackson Township & Jackson School district has spent in excess of a million dollars per year for the last 5 years for legal services. There are currently over 100 lawsuits pending against the Township. With the average law suit costing $50,000 to settle (just for legal fees) the system is clearly broken and it’s time to fix it.
Having dinner with the ex mayor of Howell recently, he described under his watch that when he hired an in-house lawyer the Township of Howell saved $300,000 annually.
Both Toms River and Howell Townships legal fee costs have remained essentially flat in 2011, while Jacksons School District’s and Township’s legal fees jumped 30 % percent.
While I appreciate the creativity of the thought and commend any attempt to save dollars through shared services,. I disagree on the referendum question as prepared.
The report fails to account for significant added financial costs resulting in growing government jobs. As an example, taxpayer dollars would have to fund for life long pension benifits, medical contributions, paid vacation, sick time, continuing education of this referendum were passed.
As one of the CBAC members tasked with reviewing this recommendation, our conclusions were summarized as follows.
“The proposal provides no factual data only speculation and conjecture. The author indicates and acknowledges a significant amount of work load would be outsourced however does not offset that expense in his save analysis . ” furthermore,
The assumption that in house legal staff would eliminate lawsuits is pure speculation and proven incorrect as Howell Twnsp who employes an in house Legal staff has just received Lawsuits from several township staff as it relates to harassment.
This type of incomplete, inaccurate research and poor presentation is very dangerous when preparing a budget and could potentially result in added costs rather than savings.
Ken Bressi: It is my opinion this referendum is flawed in many ways. It has misleading information oncosts, along with procedures that cannot be applied and even referenced to the wrong section of the Township Administrative Code.
In brief this would be a greater cost to the taxpayers, while diminishing our legal protection for the township. Therefore, I do not support this referendum.