Town solicitors reappointed to one-year terms

Fri, 04/06/2018 - 9:15am
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The New Shoreham Town Council has voted unanimously to reappoint Town Solicitors Katherine Merolla and Don Packer each to one-year terms that expire in December of 2018. The appointments were deferred from the previously scheduled time of reappointment, last December, so the Council could have a discussion with the solicitors about their responsibilities with the town.

The town council spoke with the solicitors for about an hour at its April 2 meeting, during which they inquired about their lack of a service agreement with the town, billing practices, and communication protocols.

“This all started with me as a new town council member,” said Councilor André Boudreau. “I’ve been kind of holding up both of your appointments. I thought a meeting would be beneficial.” Boudreau touched on subjects, such as the solicitors’ lack of a service agreement, how things are litigated, communication, billing, and job performance. Boudreau noted that he wasn’t “unhappy” with the services provided by the solicitors, but didn’t know how to communicate with them. 

“At any time have either of you had a service agreement with us?” asked Willi of the solicitors. Both Packer and Merolla said they did not, and never have.

First Warden Ken Lacoste said there is no written service agreement with the solicitors “because of the nature of the ongoing litigation. We want to keep the continuity of their service — the good service that we get, and not jeopardize any case that, for some cases, have been underway for a number of years.”

“That makes absolutely no sense,” said Willi.

“I’m sorry. I thought it made sense,” said Lacoste. “That’s why I said it.”

“So we have two solicitors that get appointed annually, but there’s no evaluation process in place,” said Willi. “There’s no service agreement in place. There are no guidelines in place. That’s what I’m trying to get at. Why isn’t there? In most municipalities is there not a service agreement for non-contractual employees?”

“Isn’t there an hourly rate agreement?” asked Councilor Sven Risom.

“We have a rate sheet on file for each of the solicitors,” said Town Manager Ed Roberge, who offered to provide monthly updates regarding the solicitors. “Both of them are pretty stable in terms of the rates. They’ve been consistent for a number of years.”

Merolla, who has been working as Town Solicitor for 12 years, said the solicitors “serve at the pleasure of the town council” in an open-ended fashion so the town has “flexibility to say we don’t get benefits; we don’t get vacation,” and can terminate the relationship at any time. She said when it was discussed years ago, the town council wasn’t interested in having a service agreement.

Merolla noted that she bills the town on an hourly basis ($190) for her service. Packer, a solicitor since 1989, said he bills the town $150 per hour for his services, and gets reimbursed for travel expenses. 

“Does the meter run as soon as you pick up the phone?” asked Boudreau.

“That’s how it works,” said Lacoste.

“Some times I could spend the whole day on the phone,” remarked Merolla, who said council members are free to call and speak with her.

Boudreau asked Merolla for clarity on her role as both town solicitor and the attorney employed by the Block Island Power Company.

“When the town bought two-thirds of the shares of the Block Island Power Company, the town became the majority stockholder of the power company,” said Merolla. “I was directed by the Town Manager [Nancy Dodge], and the then Council, to handle the corporate work for BIPCo during the transition to the Utility District because I was so familiar with the process, having been working on it for four years. This was not my decision. This was a directive by the Council and the Town Manager.”

“It’s in the best interest of the majority shareholder, which is the town, and the company,” said Lacoste. “There’s nothing questionable about it. It’s the most effective way to do it for those involved — the ratepayers, the town, and the shareholders of the company.”

Willi said he felt that the solicitors’ performance should be reviewed, or discussed, once a year. “Our town manager, and our solicitors, serve at the pleasure of the town council, but our town manager has a contract,” said Willi, noting that the town manager gets reviewed, but the solicitors don’t. “We should have that discussion at least once a year.”

Roberge said the councilors were “raising a good point.” He suggested that the town council discuss the matter at a work session during the year. “Maybe you don’t want to set a term” for the solicitors, “but you could have some kind of annual conversation.”

“The only problem I have with that is the nature of the relationship between us and the solicitors, and what it is they do,” said Lacoste. “So much of what they do, involving litigation, is very strategic. We can have those discussions at a work session, but they may have to be kept at a very general level.”

The next New Shoreham Town Council meeting is Wednesday, April 18 at 7 p.m., and will include adoption of the warrant for the Financial Town Meeting scheduled for Monday, May 7.