Members of Selah City Council posted a contract for the city’s first full-time attorney back to the drawing board on Tuesday evening.
Councilors voted 5-2 to instruct City Administrator Don Wayman to renegotiate the contract with DR “Rob” Case after Councilors raised questions about a severance package, the fact that the position was not advertised as open, and Concerns about how Case would balance the city’s legal needs with its current clients.
It is expected to be brought back to the Council at its February 23 meeting. Wayman warned council members that renegotiating the contract could potentially result in the city losing Case.
“This is the deal he will accept,” said Wayman. “If we change this (contract) significantly, I have no confidence that he would accept the proposed changes.”
Councilor Russ Carlson, who along with Kevin Wickenhagen had turned down the application, said he wanted to open the position to external applicants because the city had changed the job parameters.
The contract, presented to the council on Tuesday, would pay the case $ 160,000 per year as well as health benefits and participation in the public employee pension scheme.
Wayman said Case’s position was not advertised or open to outside applicants as Case had already gone through a competitive process when he was hired in 2019 and his contract contained a clause that he would be offered a full-time position if the city was satisfied with his performance.
“This was a rehearsal or audition for his services in many ways,” Wayman said.
Councilor Suzanne Vargas said it was important to open the application process in order to get a wider range of candidates for the position.
Mayor Sherry Raymond said the hiring of Case was in the best interests of the city.
“Rob has been our best pick since we’ve been here,” said Raymond. “Rob was our best choice (in September 2019) and he’s our best choice now.”
However, council members had concerns about the severance package the contract would give Case. If fired for no reason before December 31, 2030, Case would receive an amount equal to six months’ salary.
In contrast, Police Chief Dan Christman’s contract only stipulated a five-year period during which he would receive a six-month severance package.
Instead, City Councilor Kevin Wickenhagen suggested shortening the deadline to five years and granting Case three months’ salary should he be fired.
But Wayman and former Yakima County Supreme Court Justice Doug Federspiel, who reviewed the contract for the city, said a larger severance package could either prevent a lawsuit or put the city in a better position if the court sees one generous package was offered.
Federspiel noted that Case would take a risk by becoming a full-time attorney as he had no other clients to fall back on.
Carlson countered that people take such risks when they take a new job.
Carlson was also concerned about a provision that would allow Case to continue working with some clients in his private practice to resolve their cases. A lawsuit he said could take Case’s attention and time off city affairs.
“There are only so many hours in a day, so many hours in a week, that you can work on a given case before it becomes detrimental,” said Carlson. “How do we know we’re getting 100 percent (of Case)?”
The contract would prevent Case from doing additional outside work, but it does allow Case to close the cases. Case said he didn’t have a schedule on how long it would take and noted COVID-related delays in the judicial system and possible appeals, but said he would still give the city the 40 hours per week it needed.
“I don’t understand why it matters as long as the city gets the required number of hours from the person serving it, whether the hours are done at 2 p.m. or 2 a.m., and it’s done competently,” Case said.
Carlson said it was not uncommon for an attorney to explore open cases in retirement or in his election to judge.
Daniel Callahan, a resident of Selah, urged councilors to solicit applications from other lawyers as the city may find a lawyer who works for less and does a better job than Case.
“Perhaps the city could look for a lawyer to stop the city from being sued,” Callahan said in a comment read at the council meeting. “After all, three lawsuits have been filed against the city.”