Spokane Mayor John Talbott so distrusts the advice he gets from the city attorney’s office he plans to hire his own lawyer.
“I am not comfortable with some of the things that I’m being told,” Talbott said Thursday, adding he’ll use his own money to pay the legal bill. “I’m being given confidential information. I’m not an expert. …”
An independent attorney can “advise me on the subtle nuances of these matters,” he said.
Talbott isn’t the only council member who thinks an outside attorney might help sort through such complicated issues as the River Park Square downtown redevelopment plan and the Lincoln Street bridge project.
Last week, Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers put money down on her own attorney.
“I only hear one side of the story,” Rodgers said. “I wanted some background on what I’m doing here.”
At least three other council members questioned the need for outside counsel.
“I think it’s a bunch of garbage,” Councilman Orville Barnes said. “I might quit the job if I didn’t feel I could handle things I’m required to handle as a council person.”
“We all, from time to time, draw on insights from professionals in a number of arenas to help us evaluate information, but we don’t go out and hire them,” Councilwoman Phyllis Holmes said.
Councilman Jeff Colliton cautioned that his colleagues probably shouldn’t divulge proprietary information to anyone, even a lawyer bound by attorney-client privilege.
In fact, City Attorney Jim Sloane said council members can’t share confidential information with anyone - even their own attorney - unless they have the approval of a majority of their colleagues. Without that, Talbott and Rodgers could be subject to penalties, including removal from office, he said.
“The most obvious sanction would constitute a breach of their oath of office, an act of malfeasance that could provide a factual and legal basis for recall,” Sloane said.
A recall drive would have to come from voters who gathered the required number of valid signatures on petitions.
Talbott and Rodgers were undeterred by Sloane’s opinion.
“I’m still going to try it,” Talbott said.
“I find that hard to believe,” Rodgers said of Sloane’s view. Both she and Talbott plan to seek another legal opinion, possibly from the state attorney general’s office.
“I’m an elected official,” Rodgers said. “I’m here to represent all sides.”
Talbott and Rodgers said they admire the city’s legal staff members but think they offer one-sided information because they’re acting under the direction of City Manager Bill Pupo.
Because past and present councils supported the city’s involvement with the River Park Square redevelopment, Pupo feels duty-bound to see the project completed, Talbott said.
“There’s a resolution that says we’re going to go ahead,” he said. “We’re marching in that direction.”
Pupo refused to comment on the outside counsel issue.
Talbott and Rodgers said they also want an outside attorney to review the city’s appeal of the state’s denial of a shoreline permit for the Lincoln Street bridge project.
The Department of Ecology rejected the permit in January, saying it violated the city’s shoreline management plan. The city appealed the decision to the state Shorelines Hearings Board.
Rodgers said she hired attorney-developer Bill Tombari Jr. last week. Talbott wouldn’t disclose his lawyer’s name because they haven’t signed a contract.
Talbott said he would end his contract with a private attorney if the council approves his proposal for an independent auditor. He currently is researching how auditors work in other cities, and plans to present the information to his colleagues later this spring.
Colliton questioned whether Talbott would be paying for the attorney from his own bank account or with help from opponents of River Park Square, such as NorthTown Mall developer Dave Sabey.
“I’m not calling him a liar, but I’m suspect of the funding for the independent lawyer,” Colliton said. “This may be an end-run way of getting information that is proprietary.”
Sabey’s representatives have asked that information considered confidential by the city regarding a federal loan for the River Park Square project be made public.
The city is helping the shopping center’s developers secure a $22.65 million loan from the federal Housing and Urban Development.
Talbott dismissed Colliton’s charge, saying “The money’s coming out of my own pocket.”
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