Legal expense funds drained; Chair proposes to limit access to Town Attorney

Less than halfway through the year, the Town has spent all of the money it budgeted for legal expenses in 2021.

Legal expense funds drained; Chair proposes to limit access to Town Attorney

Selectboard Chair Sharon Harkay made an unconventional proposal during the May 3rd Selectboard meeting: to alter the 2021 Selectboard Rules of Procedure so that all correspondence to and from the Town Attorney goes through herself and/or Town Manager Bryan Gazda.

Her reasoning, as stated in the meeting minutes, was to “streamline the process so that things that are small, such as when the attorney is ready to discuss an item, the email doesn’t have to go to the entire Selectboard, and we avoid having bills that are higher than necessary.”

Selectboard member Li Shen immediately spoke against the proposal, taking particular issue with the suggestion that “the Town Manager and/or the Selectboard Chair will then distribute salient information to the rest of the Selectboard.” Shen felt that this would allow information to be censored.

Members Steve Tofel and Mary Bryant were on the fence. Tofel said he supported streamlining but found the idea of not having any access at all to the Town Attorney concerning. Bryant thought that while it was important to keep legal expenses down, she wanted to make sure that everything remained transparent. She also thought it was important for there to be a check and balance for the Chair.

Resident Melissa Krzal expressed concerns that Harkay’s proposal “would give one or two people too much power,” which she said would not be democratic. Krzal brought attention to a recent situation in which the previous Town Manager “talked to the Town Attorney and then wasn’t totally truthful with the Selectboard about what the attorney said.”

When asked if this over-spending was strictly the result of Selectboard members over-contacting the Town Attorney, Harkay said that consultations with the attorney about the alleged Open Meeting Law violations had cost $1,800 (or, approximately 7.2% of the legal expenses budget).

Resident Tracy Bach asked if Selectboard members were keeping track of what [other] areas were running up the legal bills, and Harkay confirmed that they were, but did not share the details of what those categories were.

Shen, however, pointed out that there are still ongoing negotiations happening for two union contracts. Thetford's two labor unions are both extremely small — the police union has two members, and the public works union has four. Both unions' previous Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs), which are posted on the Town website, expired in 2020.

Negotiating a new CBA involves a lot of back-and-forth between union member representatives and their employers. After initial proposals with contract changes are exchanged, rebuttals are made and new drafts are hammered out and exchanged again. Every proposal, rebuttal, and redraft has to go through an attorney, and while unions provide attorneys for their members, the use of the Town Attorney falls on taxpayers. If an agreement can't be reached, the negotiations go into arbitration, which further drives up the costs.

The Town budgeted $25,000 for legal services in 2021, which is $1,000 more than it budgeted for the previous year. Thetford's latest Town Report (page 65) reveals that actual spending on legal services in 2020 was $55,340.

In defense of her proposal to limit access to the Town Attorney, Harkay made the revelation that “we are over halfway through our legal expenses already and we’re only four months into the year.” Moments later she specified that “almost 86% of what we budgeted for the year has been spent.” According to the Treasurer's office, however, year-to-date spending on legal services is currently at $26,351 and has already surpassed the budgeted amount.

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