Des Plaines aldermen approved a pay raise for the law firm contracted to serve as the city's general counsel, but not before some aldermen questioned whether the city should seek bids for a different firm — or return to a full-time staff attorney.
In a slim 4-3 vote, the City Council voted last week to increase the monthly retainer paid to the firm Holland & Knight from the current $14,000 to $18,500.
"With our issues, with our cases … with everything that comes before them, the history that they have is so essential," said Ald. Denise Rodd, 3rd. "It is in the best interest of the city and residents to do what we can to work together to nurture this relationship."
After the former city attorney, David Wiltse, retired in 2012, the city sought and received proposals from seven law firms looking to represent the city.
"We did change fundamentally how we perform legal services," said City Manager Michael Bartholomew.
Holland & Knight, a national firm whose Chicago office attorneys represent multiple municipalities from Highland Park to Carpentersville, was hired by Des Plaines later that same year.
Since then, the firm has been busy on retainer items — such as preparing ordinances and attending city meetings — and nonretainer items, which consist of things like litigation and which are billed at an hourly rate separate from the retainer fee.
From August of 2012 through November of last year, the firm worked an average of 100 hours a month on retainer items and 128 hours a month on nonretainer items, according to city documents.
The city paid Holland & Knight $14,000 a month for retainer items and nearly $38,000 a month for nonretainer items, city documents show.
The city's letter of engagement with Holland & Knight calls for an annual review of rates and hours worked.
Two aldermen joined Bartholomew and the city's finance director in a series of meetings to discuss changes to the deal, but negotiations stalled over a proposal to pay Holland & Knight $25,000 a month for a more inclusive list of retainer items.
"I felt it should have been a lower amount," said Ald. Dick Sayad, 4th, who took part in negotiations and who has been a vocal critic of the firm's nonretainer work — often refusing to vote in favor of such items when they appear on the city's bills list for approval.
"The quality of Holland & Knight was never an issue," he said. "But I believe very strongly that we're talking a lot of money here."
Sayad attempted to sway his colleagues to seek proposals from other legal firms to, in his words, ensure the city isn't paying too much to Holland & Knight.
"I think that we should go out and see what's best for the residents of Des Plaines," he said.
The new deal with the city also includes an extra day a week of City Hall office hours for the firm and another review in a year's time.
"The retainer is not set in stone forever and ever," said Peter Friedman, the Holland & Knight partner who serves as the city's general counsel. "It is an attempt to estimate what a bucket of legal services will cost so there are no fluctuations in the city's budget."
The lengthy discussion during last week's meeting at times turned sharp, with one alderman attempting to lighten the mood with a classic lawyer joke.
After listening to several comments from aldermen, Friedman said the council appeared to be "ignoring the facts that the hours we put in on retainer matters were way over the $14,000."
One of the three dissenting voters, Ald. Mark Walsten, 6th, said the city should return to an attorney on staff.
"I don't believe that an outside firm in this manner is the way to run the legal department in city government, and I've said that all along," Walsten said. "I'd like to see (Friedman) be our full-time attorney here in Des Plaines."
Walsten's comments appear to be shared by officials in neighboring Park Ridge. Last month, City Manager Shawn Hamilton told aldermen he would request qualifications for legal services and post a job opening for city attorney.
"At this time, I'm just looking at options," Hamilton told aldermen. "I'd be remiss not to do so."
Like Des Plaines, Park Ridge once employed a staff attorney before hiring the Chicago firm of Klein, Thorpe and Jenkins, Ltd., in 2001, according to a staff memo. That contract expires April 30 and renews automatically unless either party gives notice 60 days prior to May 1.
According to the staff memo, some Park Ridge staff members would prefer a return to having a staff attorney.
Tribune freelance reporter Jon Davis contributed.