PITTSFIELD — Mayor Linda M. Tyer's first extended debate before the City Council came about 35 minutes into her first meeting on Tuesday.
The new mayor was vigorously challenged on her plan to hire the law firm Donovan & O'Connor as counsel to the city to fill the role of the city solicitor. The change, which was proposed on an interim basis through June to allow time to evaluate the solicitor's position, was approved about 50 minutes later on an 8-3 council vote.
Councilor at large Melissa Mazzeo and Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi argued that such an arrangement would be contrary to the government charter approved in 2013 and would make access by councilors and other officials to legal services more difficult. They said the proposal should at least be reviewed in subcommittee before implementation.
Mazzeo noted that she was "vocal against this" when former Mayor James M. Ruberto hired the same firm to represent the city. "I'm a little surprised we are going back in that direction," she said.
Former Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, whom Tyer defeated in the Nov. 3 election, had hired Kathleen Degnan as solicitor four years ago, and also hired a part-time solicitor, Darren Lee, who left that post shortly after the election.
Referring to the city's government charter, Mazzeo insisted that the proposed change would be creating "a temporary vacancy" in the solicitor's job, which was one of the situations that prompted a charter review two years ago and adoption of a new document. One charter section seeks to restrict a mayor's ability to keep temporary appointees in place indefinitely.
Mazzeo said a 90-day mayoral appointment is allowed with council approval, and then possible extensions up to 60 days.
Morandi said he found the charter language issue "really troubling," and he objected to the proposed six-month contract with the law firm because it calls for an attorney to be in the solicitor's City Hall office only two days per week while available at other times by appointment.
Although the contract for legal services, which calls for a flat fee of $8,500 per month, totals less than the salaries of the solicitor and assistant solicitor plus benefits, Morandi said the lack of a full-time office presence at City Hall means the agreement is not as cost-effective.
"I'm concerned having a law firm isn't going to give us what we need from a solicitor," he said.
Mazzeo said she believes having a law firm represent the city during the Ruberto administration was more costly than having a full-time solicitor, and said she'd like to have time to research those costs.
The solicitor's job recently paid $77,472, and the assistant solicitor's salary was listed at $35,218.
Tyer said the proposal is a contract for legal services, not an appointment to replace the solicitor. She said her plan is to consider over the next six months whether there should be changes in the structure of the office and bring a proposal to the council for the next fiscal year — beginning on July 1.
She added that she doesn't believe there is any prohibition in the charter to the arrangement or that there has to be a person in the solicitor's post, but said she'd review that along with other aspects of the current department structure.
Tyer and attorney Richard Dohoney, of Donovan & O'Connor, said he or other members of the firm would be available daily via telephone or email, and appointments could be set up any day in the City Hall office. Dohoney is to be the lead attorney under the firm's contract with Pittsfield.
Concerning contract provisions for expenses beyond the $8,500 per month fee, Dohoney said there typically were few for copying, filing fees or other services when he worked for the city in the past, since the city has an office with its own expense budget. He also noted that any such payments would be made to a third party, not the firm.
The contract sets limits of $100 per single expense and an aggregate expense limit of $1,000 before approval of the mayor is required.
Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell proposed a compromise in which Dohoney would essentially be named to the solicitor's post, and that the appointment be limited to 90 days initially with the prospect of extensions for another 60 days — or five months.
Council President Peter Marchetti said he disagreed that the change amounted to an appointment. He said it was a contract for legal services, which the city has entered on numerous occasions, such as during employee contract talks.
Ward 3 Councilor Peter White said he might have reservations about the arrangement in future discussions but is willing to give the mayor six months to develop a permanent plan for the solicitor's office.
Ward 5 Councilor Donna Todd Rivers, an attorney who once served in the solicitor's office, said she's comfortable with having a law firm represent the city, saying it allows for a range of expertise in different areas of the law. Rivers said she believes it a good idea to review the department and consider changes long-term.
Council Vice President and Ward 6 Councilor John Krol said he has "never had the expectation" officials could drop by the solicitor's office without an appointment, and the situation shouldn't change with the law firm.
He added that "people want us to look at things differently," with an eye toward finding a more efficient or effective format. Six months is a reasonable time frame for such a review, he said.
Along those lines, the council also voted unanimously Tuesday to refer to the mayor's office Councilor at large Kathleen Amuso's proposal for an independent review of city departments to point out inefficiencies or duplication of effort.
Connell said he would like to see a task force, rather than a consulting firm, undertake such a review of department operations.