Eugene City Attorneys Solve Problems Not Yet Created

Two years ago today, Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz announced his decision to renegotiate the city’s longstanding contract for legal services with Harrang Long Gary Rudnick, P.C., creating in its place a City Attorney’s Office.

Ruiz looked back this week: “I see it as one change that I’ve implemented that will last long after I’m gone. That was early in my career here, so I hope I didn’t peak too soon. We still have a lot of work to do.”

That 2009 announcement spurred immediate changes. Departments and programs began moving like hamsters rearranging their shavings: Equity & Human Rights, Sustainability, Intergovernmental Relations, Service Improvement, and the city manager’s support staff reshuffled to make room for the new department.

Desks and bookcases were salvaged from storage beneath the Atrium Building. Locks were changed and some walls got new paint, but frugality was the order of the day. Ruiz told the city councilors that the move would save the city $400,000 a year and it has, but that gets ahead of the story.

“I’ve never had a whiteboard in my office before,” says Emily Jerome, Eugene’s deputy city attorney. For most attorneys, confidentiality is paramount. Whiteboards don’t fit with the hushed tones of secrecy. “Jon needs a whiteboard everywhere he goes. There are great ideas flowing all the time. It’s part of how he solves problems.”

Attorneys are good for solving problems, but since taking most legal services in-house, they’ve become Ruiz’s counselors in more than the strictly legal sense.

“Part of the way I make decisions is to have lots of conversations,” reflects Ruiz. “I take it all in and then I begin mulling it all. I want legal advice all the way through that process.”

“I learned quickly that my role had changed,” recalls City Attorney Glenn Klein. “I came to my first executive team meeting as staff and Jon asked everyone for their take on a particular situation. I thought I should just listen, in case somebody suggested something that could create legal problems. That’s our training. It’s what we do.” Ruiz listens to this retelling with the slightest smile, which Klein can’t see. “How do I say this? Jon kind of slapped my hand, told me, no, he wanted my opinion, the same as the others. It’s a different way of doing business.”

Klein undoubtedly was on Ruiz’s speed dial before, but now their offices share a wall. “We get more work done when we can just walk down the hall and brainstorm,” Klein says. “Now it’s easy to drop in. It’s tough to brainstorm with a client when you’re charging them three dollars a minute. It’s a different conversation.”

Those conversations are richer for the diversity of work styles Ruiz has hired. Jerome has scribbled notes in pencil on the back of the note reminding her of this meeting. Klein has brought a spreadsheet titled Legal Services Expenditures. The sheet shows the lower price paid — $639,037 last year. Their banter demonstrates the greater value received.

Jerome picks up on her earlier topic, “Part of our job is to know our culture.”

Ruiz completes Jerome’s thought, if not her sentence, “I want to hear their feel for the community, their sense of the political pulse.”

Jerome answers the volley. “I know the legal requirements, but understanding the city’s policy objectives is also important. Now we can better bring those two together.”

The staccato of conversation is difficult — and expensive — when the framework is billable hours, and the goal is to help or keep a client out of legal trouble. Now the city’s “Legal Team” can do more than solve problems. They can also scout opportunities.

For example, Jerome serves on a “TBL” task team. This group of city employees sifts through city policies and purchases, looking for new and inventive ways to achieve the “triple bottom line,” promoting equity, economy and the environment. The team located a source of recyclable thermal paper for library check-out receipts.

That’s not the sort of work attorneys normally get asked to do, but such a tactile contribution makes Jerome smile. “It’s satisfying to be solving more than the city’s legal problems.”

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.