After months of defending the large amount of city legal work being done by private law firms, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday that he now wants to have the city's own legal staff take on more of the load again.
Mr. Schmoke disclosed in late July that the city had paid nearly $18 million in taxpayer funds for legal work by private firms during the preceding 4 1/2 years, including $2 million to Shapiro and Olander, the firm of his top two political advisers.
The millions spent on legal work outside the city's Law Department, which has a staff of 78 and an annual budget of $10 million, became an issue in the just-concluded Democratic mayoral primary. City Council President Mary Pat Clarke repeatedly criticized the legal fees in her unsuccessful attempt to unseat Mr. Schmoke.
The mayor insisted that awarding work to private firms was necessary because the Law Department did not have the resources and expertise to handle the work alone. Yesterday, however, Mr. Schmoke made clear that he wanted to see whether the city could save money. "I have asked for a thorough evaluation of our use of outside attorneys to try to bring more legal work, particularly of a routine nature, in-house," Mr. Schmoke said at his first City Hall news conference since trouncing Mrs. Clarke by a 20-point margin in the Sept. 12 primary.
Although Mr. Schmoke said it was his rival more than the public who raised questions about legal fees during the campaign, he acknowledged that several polls found that many surveyed thought the city spent too much on outside legal counsel. One of his goals, he said, is to clarify the reasons and circumstances for hiring private firms.
"People didn't really understand very clearly why we needed to use outside counsel, so I asked [City Solicitor Neal M. Janey] to give some policy guidelines, and also if we can reduce our reliance on outside counsel, we should," he said.
The state's top lawyer, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, said the mayor's announcement was "good news."
"We in government do have tight budgets, and the mayor would be well-served by having a full accounting of how the fees might be lessened," he said.
But a representative of a city taxpayers' group was more reserved. "I'm not surprised that the mayor would say something like that. It remains to be seen if he's going to take a serious look at it," said George A. Nilson, an attorney and vice president of the Baltimore Homeowners' Coalition for Fair Property Taxes, which backed Mrs. Clarke.
The controversy over payments to private legal firms began after an article in The Sun in early July documented that Shapiro and Olander were paid substantially more money during Mr. Schmoke's second term.
When the city disclosed all its legal fees three weeks later, the firm made public that it had collected $442,000 from clients of two quasi-public agencies it represents in addition to the $2 million in city fees.
Just before his election, Mr. Schmoke pledged to review all city agencies with an eye toward cutting costs and making government more responsive. Yesterday, besides announcing his plans to change the way the city handles legal work, Mr. Schmoke said he was looking into the use of telephone voice mail after learning that a couple of employees were ignoring calls while sitting by the phone.
Mr. Janey has been asked to examine the legal work and come up with recommendations by early December. The city's top legal officer since Mr. Schmoke took office in 1987, he had said he would return to private practice after the primary election, but was persuaded by the mayor to remain.
Among Mr. Schmoke's directives: set up guidelines for the hiring of private lawyers, evaluate the amount of bond work and other legal services done by private firms to determine how much could be handled internally, and eliminate any practicing on the side by the city's legal staff.
Mr. Schmoke also said he wants to re-evaluate the city's legal relationship with its quasi-public agencies, including the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development branch.
Walter Sondheim, a former BDC board member, advised the mayor that past quasi-public economic development agencies relied more on the Law Department. When the mayor created the BDC, Shapiro and Olander became the principal counsel, as it is for two other quasi-public groups.