Water district directors disagree on general counsel
August 07, 2013Although the general counsel for the Valley Center Municipal Water District has been the district's lawyer for about 30 years, VCMWD is going to go through the motions of putting out a request for proposal (RFP) to invite possibly dozens of other law firms to submit proposals for the job.
"I'm an old time farmer and I grew up with an idea that if it ain't broke don't fix it," declared board Pres. Gary Broomell angrily at Monday's meeting where it was obvious that one director, Merle Aleshire, is very hot to set the process in motion, even if it turns out that the same firm is selected. The other directors are not so hot to pursue this course, but aren't inclined to get in Aleshire's way, either. Except for Broomell.
Normally the gentlemen farmers who make up the majority of the board operate in an easygoing, collegial manner, where they hardly ever disagree with one another. This is one of the rare exceptions.
The law firm that is the source of the conflict is Best Best & Krieger, one of the largest and most successful law firms that represent water districts and other governmental agencies in the state. It is a national firm with offices in Washington D.C.
During the discussion Monday, Aleshire said he wants to ask for proposals not only from Southern California firms, but statewide.
"I wouldn't restrict this thing to firms that are in Southern California. You might find someone who wants to develop a capability here. We should not restrictive in who we ask to respond to the RFP," said Aleshire.
Gen. Mgr. Gary Arant said he thought they would get plenty of candidates just from Southern California.
Broomell declared, "I don't think we have any reason to quit with our current law firm. I think it is a waste of time of our staff and that's my opinion."
Aleshire, who several years ago proposed changing auditors every few years, and persuaded the board to go along, asked Broomell if the situations were not similar.
Director Chuck Stone said he didn't believe they were. "An auditor performs a defined service in which there is not a lot of personal interplay," he said. "I see selecting a lawyer to represent you as the equivalent to picking a surgeon. It's a personal relationship and I don't see them as related."
Arant said he thought the entire process, to be thorough, should take several months, with the goal of selecting a law firm in January of 2014. "There would need to be a significant transition period …Some of these things take a long time," he said.
Aleshire suggested a two-man subcommittee composed of himself and Stone to work with staff to write an RPF. Stone was reluctant because he opposes changing law firms.
In the end, directors stalemated 2-2 on giving that job to a subcommittee. The task of preparing an RFP will now fall on staff.
"Obviously we are going to be looking over the shoulder of the staff in the preparation of the RFP. That's the most important thing," Aleshire said. "I would like to see board influence on the front end, rather than the back end, as far as the questions." He added, "I want to see this open to the state and see how people respond. We may get a surprise."
Arant said he would feel more comfortable limiting the selection a San Diego firm that provides a wide range of services.
Aleshire countered, "A small firm can provide a wide range of services. They all have people they can access, so the fact they are not a self contained all-service organization should not be a factor."
Arant said there may be as many as a dozen such firms in the area that provide a wide range of services.
Director Randy Haskell said, "I'd like the firm we pick to be someone similar to who we have. One that offers a full range. Finding a law firm is sort of like locating a partner who understands your needs and knows where you want to go."
Aleshire asked, "What have you got to lose by opening it to everybody? When you do the selection process you might say that someone is too small. What have you got to lose when several people compete?"
"It's not a question of what I have to lose, it's a question of how much staff time I have to spend on it," Arant said.
The motion to give the job of creating an RFP to two directors deadlocked at 2-2. Which now leaves that task up to staff.
"I make a motion that we drop this whole damn thing!" said Broomell. However, it was pointed out to him that the motion to conduct the search has already been passed by a majority at the last meeting.
Director Bob Polito said he was inclined to do the process now. "I'd like to get this resolved. I think Merle had the idea of the auditor and now this one, and I think we ought to deal with it because it's going to come back again. Let's get it over with, and hopefully Merle will see that we make a good decision, and that decision may be that our law firm is the one to go with."
"BB&K will certainly have the advantage. If they can't win they don't deserve to win," said Aleshire, who continued to press for allowing small firms to compete, as well. "There is an argument to be made for a smaller firm that has access to high quality support. It's cheaper than hiring specialists on staff all the time. There could be a cost difference. The fact that they don't have every conceivable attorney on staff should not be a factor."
"What the hell are we looking for?" snapped Broomell. "We have a law firm that is doing a good job. This is a waste of time and effort!"
Staff was directed to draft an RFP, with the decisions as to what area to limit the selection to, to be made at a later meeting.