Black Diamond hires interim city attorney; payment over council attorney still disputed

Cooler heads and calmer voices marked a major shift in tone at the May 5 Black Diamond City Council meeting.

Top row: Brian Weber

Cooler heads and calmer voices marked a major shift in tone at the May 5 Black Diamond City Council meeting.

But while the mayor and council members avoided major verbal conflict, the outcome of the meeting resembled many others since the start of the year, with city and council business being sent into council committees and little final action taken by the council.

The beginning of the meeting started to tense up after Councilwoman Erika Morgan and Mayor Carol Benson argued over the correct agenda for the night. One agenda was submitted by the mayor, and another submitted and approved by Morgan and Council President Pat Pepper, as per the council’s rules and regulations.

The argument quickly ended after Benson called for a recess. When council members returned to the chambers, Benson warned Morgan that if she continued to disrupt the meeting, she could be removed from the council chambers without a vote, according to section 2.10 of the Black Diamond Municipal Code.

From that moment, arguments over the agenda ceased and the council went forward using the agenda submitted by the mayor.

Unlike previous meetings where the agenda has been debated, the two agendas submitted for this meeting were fairly similar. The only major difference was the inclusion of unfinished business items on the mayor’s agenda.

These four unfinished business items – accepting a Department of Ecology grant, confirming a civil service commission position, authorizing an agreement with BHC consultants from Seattle for building services and another agreement DKS Associates to help the city put together its Comprehensive Plan – were in various standing council committees while the council met.

Council members Brian Weber, Pepper and Morgan declined in four votes to bring these items out of committee for council to take final action, despite strong objections from council members Janie Edelman and Tamie Deady.

All of the new business items listed on both agendas were also sent to standing committees by Weber, Pepper and Morgan as per the council rules.

These items included a grant agreement with PSE concerning a LED streetlight conversion, authorizing a water quality grant with King County, confirming an appointment to the city’s Planning Commission, authorizing an interlocal agreement with the city of Maple Valley for building inspection services, awarding a construction project to Lakeridge Paving Company, approving a contract for the design of the Covington Creek culvert replacement and an ordinance updating the city’s stormwater code.

With the building services and inspection agreements with BHC and Maple Valley in committee, Black Diamond currently does not have the long-term ability to inspect building permits, plans or infrastructure, which could become a problem when the Enumclaw School District wants to start building the new Black Diamond elementary school later this year.

The mayor recently signed a $15,000 contract with BHC services in order to give the city limited building inspection services abilities concerning the elementary school until a larger contract can be signed.

A date for when the contract was signed could not be confirmed before press deadline.

Interim attorney

One of the stark differences between the raucous April 21 meeting and the comparatively composed May 5 meeting was the presence of a city attorney.

With Carol Morris, the city’s last attorney, no longer performing work for Black Diamond and the legality of her contract termination under question, Benson hired Yvonne Ward April 27 without the approval of the council, which Morgan pointed out during the May 5 meeting.

“I understand that you’ve been hired by the mayor to provide legal services to the city of Black Diamond on an emergency basis… we appreciate your willingness to assist our city,” Morgan said during the meeting. “We were not notified you were hired and we were not consulted in any way. The council has authority to contract with the city attorney and we have not reviewed or voted on your contract. Despite our objections, we believe you will work in good faith to serve the mayor and the council equally, and we extend our welcome to you.”

The Black Diamond Municipal Code section 2.90.101 allows the mayor to approve contracts without council approval as long as the contract is for $15,000 or less and the money is already available as a budget line item.

Ward made it clear during the May 5 meeting that her role as city attorney is strictly temporary and limited.

“I have a very limited scope to handle the emergent things that come up until a permanent city attorney is hired,” Ward told the council during her attorney report, mentioning that a request for proposals for a permanent city attorney were sent out by the city May 6 and that she will not be applying.

Ward was an interim attorney for the city in November 2009 when Leonard Smith, a former city administrator, was put on leave and Loren Combs, a former city attorney, resigned.

Council attorney update

Even though the city has hired a temporary city attorney and is actively looking to fill the position permanently, the council has employed the firm Talmadge, Fitzpatrick and Tribe to represent the council in matters relating to the disputed council rules that were adopted last January and the questionable termination of former attorney Morris.

The firm was hired during the April 21 meeting by suspending the council rules, which would normally send the resolution to committee before the council could take final action.

The resolution to hire Talmadge, Fitzpatrick and Tribe was approved by Weber, Pepper and Morgan, and opposed by Edelman and Deady.

Benson signed the resolution to hire the firm, but did not sign the contract and reiterated in a phone interview May 13 that the city will not be paying for the firm’s services, nor will the city reimburse council members for the cost of the firm.

Council woman Pepper, whose signature is on the contract with the firm, disagreed with the mayor in a phone interview May 14, saying that Talmadge, Fitzpatrick and Tribe are finishing up the work the firm was hired for and the city should be receiving a bill for their services in the near future.

“The council hired them, and the council has the right to contract,” Pepper said. “The city will be receiving a bill.”

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