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Huntington Beach council to consider outsourcing legal services

City attorney and staff voice opposition to the proposal, which the mayor calls a cost-cutting measure.

July 25, 2012|By Mona Shadia | By Mona Shadia

The Huntington Beach City Council voted Monday to look into outsourcing the city's legal services.

Supporters called the proposal a potential cost-saving measure while critics argued that it would lead to financial and legal woes.

The council voted 5 to 2 in favor of the review process, which is expected to examine whether outsourcing legal services will save money.

Mayor Don Hansen, who placed the item on the agenda, cited the budget, not ideology, as the only reason for the analysis.

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"We're trying to manage budget shortfalls, balance staffing levels, provide for public safety, maintain our infrastructure," he said. "All that takes money."

The city attorney's budget is about $2.3 million — less than 1.5% of the general budget, said City Attorney Jennifer McGrath.

Outsourcing could mean laying off the office entire staff — except for McGrath, who is elected — and replacing the city employees with outside counsel. Many Orange County cities outsource their legal departments to private firms.

McGrath said her staff members have been feeling "horrible" about the outsourcing proposal, and all 10 attended Monday's council meeting.

Assistant City Attorney Scott Field spoke before the council, urging it not to outsource his and his colleagues' jobs.

"Reject this item," he said.

"I would find it hard to believe that an office full of attorneys would sit by and let the city outsource them without a fight," Councilwoman Connie Boardman said.

Boardman questioned the legality of outsourcing and pointed to the troubles Costa Mesa has been having with its outsourcing endeavors. That city has issued pink slips to some 200 employees and is reviewing whether it can replace them with outside contractors; in turn, the employees are suing in hopes of keeping their jobs.

The discussion leading up to the vote was tense, and at one point, Hansen criticized Councilman Joe Shaw.

"The disrespect that you consistently show your colleagues ... is flabbergasting," Hansen said.

Shaw had questioned the council majority's motives behind efforts to outsource McGrath's office, reminding them of previous failed attempts to change the office's current model and of a recent audit that gave the attorney's office favorable marks.

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