Back in October, we wrote a post about City Attorney Lori Barker’s announcement that she would be retiring in April after 24 years of service to the City of Chico. In our original post we speculated, among other things, that she might have been ‘invited’ to retire.
Here’s one of the points we made in the original post:
Ms. Barker is the sole remaining member of the City’s former Budget Reduction Strategy Team. She knows the facts and circumstances surrounding every action the City took to address the impacts of the recession and its accompanying loss of sales tax revenues, the loss of Redevelopment Agency funds and Vehicle License Fees via State takes, and the subsequent defeat of Measure J (the cellphone tax) that resulted in refunds of prior years’ revenues. We suspect that her narrative about what actually happened differs significantly from the Council’s recent public statements, and we wonder whether she was quietly attempting to correct it, to her ultimate peril.
We also expressed concerns about contracting out City Attorney services:
We have had our suspicions all along that the City Attorney function would be contracted out, which should be cause for public concern. A City Attorney who is a public servant has a duty to the citizens. An outside law firm hired by the Council might not operate within the same constraints, and we believe a conflict of interest might exist if there was no duty to faithfully put the community’s best interest above the Council’s direction. We don’t like it and hope it does not happen, although the Mayor mentioned it in the final paragraph of today’s article: “Gruendl said the council could decide to fill the city attorney position or consider options for contracting out.” [Alicia actually called that play in her very first chat with the Council on August 6. She says somebody owes her five bucks!]
At its meeting of December 17, 2013, the City Council considered and approved (4-3-0 with Schwab, Stone, and Gruendl opposed), and the City subsequently issued, a Request for Proposals (RFP) for City Attorney services. The staff report is here: 2013-12-17_Staff Report_Request for City Attorney Proposals, the RFP is here: Request for Proposals City Attorney Services, and the video discussion is here at time signature 03:19:00: Council Discussion of City Attorney RFP. [As an aside, this video contains one of my favorite Gruendl maneuvers. He actually counted the votes to make sure the motion passed before deciding which way he would vote. He tried to explain it away afterward, but I call BS.] The closing date for receipt of proposals was Friday, January 31.
Here’s where this gets interesting:
Former Councilmember Andy Holcombe, who is currently residing in Australia, got wind of the RFP and wrote a letter to both the Chico News & Review and the Chico Enterprise Record (both published on Thursday, January 23). Here is the text of his letter:
I recently learned that Chico City Attorney Lori Barker is retiring.
I am happy for her but, as a former councilor, worried for the city she served so well.
Lori’s great sense of fairness and what is right will be missed.
The city was her only client. We were better councilors, a better council, and a better city thanks to her professionalism.
What worries me is that the position of an in-house city attorney may be contracted out to a private firm. That would be a costly mistake. The cost of an outside firm providing the same level of service and accessibility to it would be more.
The value of day-to-day legal advice to staff may not be quantifiable, but it is huge. An even greater loss if attorney services are contracted out is the intrinsic value of the city attorney position. The city attorney is one of only two city positions hired by the council. The other is the city manager.
The city attorney reports directly to council as an independent city legal voice responsible to council on behalf of Chico, its client. The position is an important balance and buffer to the city manager. The in-house city attorney position has a significant procedural and substantive role in the running of our city. Whatever budget balancing may be desired, we cannot afford to lose the systematic checks and balances of a city well run.
— Andy Holcombe, Victoria, Australia
Then, on Thursday, January 30, the Chico News & Review published an article, an editorial, and a response to Holcombe’s letter submitted by Councilmember Mark Sorensen.
What’s so interesting about that?
The article states that, “[Ms. Barker] did not want to comment publicly on the matter other than to say her decision to retire was not triggered by any inside pressure to do so, as has been suggested by some city government watchdogs.” This statement is followed immediately by the word “But.”
The article then goes on to give an overview of Mr. Holcombe’s letter, points readers to Mark Sorensen’s response, and then provides the following additional quotes received from Sorensen via email:
He went on to say that Barker “was one of the four primary people in the old ‘Budget Team.’ It seemed that the ‘budget team’ carefully plotted the course, developed the talking points, and decided how information would be provided, when, and carefully filtered and shaped the information that was allowed to come to the public and to council.”
Sorensen said such a setup led to excessive city spending that took the city close to insolvency. “[This] further demonstrates the need for far greater levels of city attorney objectivity and independence from internal management and staff,” he said.
That sure suggests internal pressure to me. And it seems eerily similar to what we speculated about in our original post. [It also appears that Sorensen wasn’t wearing his tin foil hat when he wrote that email. “…carefully filtered and shaped the information that was allowed to come to the public and to council?” Really?] What do you think?
At any rate, kudos once again to the Chico News & Review for reporting rather than repeating. It’s good to know we have one local newspaper that isn’t simply parroting whatever is put forth by Nakamura and his lap-dog Council.
We thank you for your continued readership and welcome your comments and questions. Please continue to share our posts with your fellow Chicoans. Nothing we do makes any difference unless we can get the citizens and taxpayers involved.