SUTHERLIN — Members of the Sutherlin city staff are saying that one Sutherlin councilor, who is running for reelection this year, has racked up thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees during her term.
Other councilors, meanwhile, have not cost the city a dime in such fees.
Councilor Karen Meier has faced several allegations of excessively requesting legal counsel from city attorney Chad Jacobs both during public meetings and behind closed doors.
The attorney has to charge the city fees for his time, whether it’s for returning an email, spending a few minutes on the phone, or spending hours researching the minutiae of city ordinances. Jacobs works out of Portland with the Beery, Elsner & Hammond firm.
When The News-Review requested invoices showing how much Meier has cost the city in attorney’s fees, city recorder Debbie Hamilton returned invoices that had specific charges circled in red ink. City staff determined that those fees were directly related to Meier through her instigations, Hamilton said, whether in private or at a city council meeting. They add up to $15,203.
City manager Jerry Gillham revisited those numbers Oct. 18. He said the accurate number of charges associated with Meier’s instigations is $14,087. That includes attorney fees and subsequent charges related to them.
“The first call to the attorney creates a bill, then there are subsequent actions we have to take in response to that call, whether it be an email, a phone call, or staff member or council member,” Gillham said. “We have a bunch of repercussion costs.”
He added that it is difficult to tie attorney charges to one councilor.
“The numbers are still arguable, because we don’t know what the attorney was thinking,” Gillham said. “This is our tracking of the bills that we believe, as staff, are connected to [Meier’s] original contact with the city attorney.”
Direct attorney fees charged due to Meier’s instigations, not including subsequent related costs, add up to $7,771.
Meier said she is doing her job when she brings up a legal question. She is also saving the city money by preventing potential lawsuits later down the line, she said.
“If you saw something illegal happening, and you were in that position, would you say something or not?” she said. “Or do you just let it go? No, I’m not just going to let it go and not spend attorney’s fees.”
Meier also alleged that the city staff is against her campaign this year.
“They’re really trying to smear me,” Meier said. “They don’t want me on the council any more because I provide the oversight. I just don’t go in and rubber stamp stuff. I take it seriously.”
Mayor Todd McKnight said Meier needs to bring her legal questions before the council first, so they can be heard in a public meeting.
“It’s very frustrating to me,” McKnight said. “(Meier) has been known to call out a lot of other councilors. She always speaks of transparency, and that she’s going to stand out front of city hall and stand guard watching over the money. Meanwhile, around the back door, she’s spending thousands of taxpayers’ dollars without the consent of the council. And it needs to stop.”
Her investigations go beyond the normal oversight associated with being a city councilor, he added. Although she has questioned council decisions on large issues, such as funding the new wastewater treatment plant, she has also instigated several small ones that end up costing the city hundreds of dollars.
Meanwhile, Meier has called herself a staunch supporter of saving taxpayer dollars. During her term, she voted not to join a fire district, so that the city could operate its own predominately volunteer-run fire department without paying district fees. She also voted against joining the county library district.
Meier has been reprimanded for abusing attorney counsel before. Back in 2014, McKnight asked the council to consider a new protocol when reaching out to the city attorney. This was following several charges made in relation to Meier.
McKnight asked that councilors reach out to him or Gillham with legal questions first. If there needs to be more research, then councilors could bring it to the next meeting for a vote on whether to seek legal counsel or not. Councilors voted to follow this process.
Even so, Meier continued to seek legal counsel without going through the manager or mayor first, McKnight told The News-Review this week. She also fails to bring her legal questions to a public meeting. Meier rejected his allegation, and said she has only carbon-copied the attorney in emails.
She later added that she prefers to research the legality of issues before city council meetings.
“I don’t want to go to a council meeting and say something is not legal,” she said. “The city council hires the attorney for his services. We should be allowed to ask legal questions.”
The council, too, has not followed the protocol. Hamilton also said that the council “rarely” votes on whether it should use Jacobs’ services.
“What we’re saying (to Jacobs) is if someone contacts you, you need to make sure that these steps have been followed so we don’t keep accruing these bills,” McKnight said. “Maybe that’s something we need to address again with the city attorney, because this can’t keep going on. These bills are getting out of control.”
Jacobs did not return The News-Review’s request for comment.