A telling vote

Conservative council member breaks with contracted law firm after bungled litigation

This week, I’m hopping into the DeLorean and setting the dial to spring 2014. The city of Chico was climbing its way out of a financial hole triggered by the Great Recession.

Morale at City Hall was still in the dumps following then-City Manager Brian Nakamura’s efforts to “rightsize” the budget. That’s code for layoffs—the year before, dozens of employees lost their jobs.

But that wasn’t the only trend of the time. Another one: turning to the private sector to perform services traditionally conducted by staff. Many departments or portions thereof—animal control, street sweeping, tree work, etc.—were on the table. Then there was the biggie: the City Attorney’s Office.

The city had always operated with in-house counsel, supplemented by various outside firms depending on the litigation at hand, but saving funds was the order of the day. The question before the City Council: Should it contract out that essential department?

In an editorial, the CN&R came out against such an arrangement. That’s because yours truly had covered local government for years and had watched City Attorney Lori Barker—originally hired as assistant city attorney in 1990—present information and advice that shielded the municipality from potential lawsuits. She was accessible and held vast historical knowledge.

That changed in 2014 when a liberal-majority council hired City of Industry-based Alvarez-Glasman & Colvin following an announcement that Barker was retiring. She was among the last of the senior-level managers from the pre-recession era that hadn’t quit, suddenly “retired” or been sacked.

Back then, roughly seven months before an election, the lefties were on the ropes politically. The conservatives had spun the narrative that the city’s financial woes were due to the liberals’ mismanagement—to hell with the fact that the main culprits were the largest recession since the Great Depression and the overly generous compensation packages awarded to certain employee groups over the years by both left- and right-leaning councils.

One of the biggest backers of privatization was Mark Sorensen, vice mayor at the time. In the CN&R’s election coverage months later—the year the council flipped—Sorensen charged that switching to contracted attorneys would save “hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.”

But has it? I’m not so sure.

I’m especially skeptical considering how the city now appears to be on the hook for a slew of attorney’s fees related to the ongoing Chico Scrap Metal saga in which Alvarez-Glasman & Colvin represented the city. Recall how Sorensen and the rest of the conservatives 1) sued Councilman Karl Ory over his participation in Move the Junkyard’s referendum to force the recycler to move, 2) entered into an agreement with that private business wherein they believed it would pay attorney’s fees, and 3) cost the city (aka taxpayers) what likely totals hundreds of thousands of dollars since a superior court judge ultimately ruled in the referendum’s favor.

Who benefited from the litigiousness? Alvarez-Glasman & Colvin.

Last week we reported that the council—the new liberal-majority panel—was cutting ties with the So Cal-based firm. One might assume that move is politically motivated. But that’s clearly not the case. My evidence: conservative Kasey Reynolds broke with Sean Morgan to vote with the liberals. That’s telling.