City Council moves to hire its own lawyer

A City Council committee approved a proposal Tuesday to hire an independent lawyer instead of relying on City Solicitor George Nilson for legal advice.

Some council members say they believe Nilson, who reports to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, is loyal primarily to the mayor, and does not give the council's views the same weight in making decisions.

"The council needs its own legal advice, so there can be less confusion and more trust," said City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who sponsored the bill. "Our lawyer might say, 'George Nilson is absolutely correct.' But we want our own independent attorney."

The charter amendment legislation requires the council's attorney to be paid as much as a chief in the city law department, a position that currently pays $107,300 annually. It also prohibits the attorney from holding outside employment.

The measure, which passed the legislative committee unanimously, advances to the full City Council for a vote Monday. If approved and signed by Rawlings-Blake, it would go before the voters in 2014 for final approval.

Nilson said a charter change would create a duplicative office in city government that could likely end up giving the same legal advice he's giving. He said Rawlings-Blake doesn't interfere with the law office's work, and the opinions he gives the council are based on sound interpretations of the law, not politics.

"I honestly don't think it's a good idea or necessary," Nilson said.

Nevertheless, he said, he helped Young create amendments to the bill to improve it.

Young introduced the bill for an independent lawyer in June amid a disagreement with Nilson over the council president's push to require businesses getting large city contracts or financial support to hire 51 percent of new workers from Baltimore. The city's law department challenged the legislation, calling it unconstitutional.

In a letter to council members, city lawyers said that enacting hiring preferences based on residence would put the city in a "legally indefensible" position and violate the Constitution's "privileges and immunities" clause, which bars one state from discriminating against the residents of another. Nilson warned that the city would lose any lawsuits filed against it.

Councilman Warren Branch accused Nilson last week of not supporting the bill for political reasons.

"You did everything you could to not support those folks who couldn't find jobs in the city," Branch said.

"Whether it's real or part-perception, there really is a feeling that there is favor given to the executive branch," Councilman James B. Kraft added.

Nilson said Tuesday that his advice on the local hiring legislation was not based on loyalty to the mayor, who allowed the bill to become law without her signature, but on an interpretation of federal law.

"My opinion made her life more difficult," Nilson said of Rawlings-Blake. "Politically, the mayor would have loved to be on board with the local hiring bill. My having said that created an awkward situation."

Young said this week that he'd been planning the bill long before the disagreement over local hiring.

"There are lot of things that we have voted on with the advice of this law department that if I had really thought about it, I would not have done, like how they weakened the audits bill," Young said.

Young was referring to legislation last year that called for audits of 55 city agencies every two years. The amended legislation required audits of at least 13 agencies every four years.

On Tuesday, the committee reviewing the charter amendment inserted language to make sure the position would receive at least $107,300 in funding. Kraft, the committee chairman, said he believed the council's attorney needed to be paid at least $150,000 a year.

"It's not a 40-hour-a-week job. The person has to have fair compensation. It's a professional job," Kraft said. "I wouldn't ask anyone to do this job for less than $150,000 a year."

Nilson recommended the position pay at least $120,000.

"If they're going to have a lawyer, I'd rather that the council had a decently paid, competent, experienced lawyer," he said.

The legislation comes as the city works to overcome a projected $750 million long-term structural deficit with cuts to staff, pensions and health care. But Young said he didn't think the city's fiscal challenges should stop an independent body of government from receiving independent counsel.

"There are two branches of government and we should have advice from our own attorney," Young said. "Tough economic times should not weigh in on us getting good, sound legal advice."

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

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