Yesterday I had posted about the current City Council efforts to appraise the value of Colantuono & Levin as the purveyor of City Attorney services for this small but bustling burgh. In particular the RFP process currently under way to see if perhaps we can't find a law firm that isn't quite so darn pricey. Nearly 40 firms and individual attorneys answered the call for our pricing request, a list that has now been somehow whittled down to a mere two. Colantuono & Levin being one of the lucky pair. A development that I personally find to be somewhat fishy, but maybe that is just me. I have a suspicious nature.
After having noted yesterday that the fix did appear to be in on this one, and that Colantuono & Levin's proponents on the City Council had pretty much carried the day for the law firm that oftentimes represents the same troublesome outside interests as they do, a disturbing conflict of interest situation was brought to my attention in reader comments. The comments section of the Sierra Madre Tattler being the place where, as many are keenly aware, the more knowledgeable people of all perspectives in town let their opinions be known. Here is how it read:
Please, come to our City Council meeting and cite all the reasons we should pick RWG for our legal firm. They are the most highly qualified firm in the bidding that can help us with our water problems, Carol Lynch is the most highly qualified (rates 5 out of 5) and I'm sure to get our city they will be most willing to negotiate with us on pricing. They are super close to C&L and when figuring out all the bonus hours, might even be less expensive.
If Josh Moran votes for C&L, I would challenge that vote since he was listed on C&L's bid as a reference for Terri (Highsmith). Who would list someone as a reference who will interview you for a job? Pretty stupid if you ask me. Yes, the fix is in.
When I read that comment I was immediately intrigued. As I've said, I suspected that the fix was in, and had been all along, but this one could have tripped over a rather bright line. I knew that the relationship between City Staff, the Mayor and our Colantuono & Levin City Attorney Teresa L. Highsmith was annoyingly chummy, but had they now breached a much more serious ethical frontier?
I asked the commenter to e-mail me with more information, and here is what showed up in this blog's mailbox:
I was the one who posted re: references for C&L. On the packet that C&L sent to the City Council for consideration, Terri (Highsmith) listed both Josh Moran and Elaine Aguilar as references. When asked about it by Chris Koerber, she said it never occurred to her that this would be a conflict of interest, that she merely listed them as references who could answer questions about her qualifications. Then Chris asked her if she didn't have any other references she could use, she became flustered and said, yes, I have other references, but . . . Carol Lynch knows Elaine professionally as they worked together at La Puente from 1995 to 2001. That only came out when Chris asked Elaine to explain their connection. Carol did not make that connection at any time which, I think, was the ethical thing to do.
That was not the only e-mail I received on this matter. Another reader also wrote in, and here is what she had to say:
Am I the only person in Sierra Madre who finds it odd that Ms. Highsmith from Colantuono & Levin listed both our City Manager and our Mayor as references in her firm's proposal to continue to represent the City? The proposal is a huge document - the relevant page is attached. What issues does it raise for our Mayor's objectivity in this case?
Here is how the two references in question appear in that document:
E. References and Potential Conflicts of Interest
1. Provide references and contact information for five municipal clients for which services have been provided in the last three years
References for Teresa l. Highmsith:
Elaine Aguilar, City Manager
City of Sierra Madre
Telephone: (626) 355-2917
Josh Moran, Mayor
City of Sierra Madre
Telephone: (626) 808-8083 (cell)
References are provided from various other municipal dignitaries in Los Alamitos, Barstow, La Habra Heights and Grass Valley as well. However, none of them are currently making decisions about whether to hire a new City Attorney or not. I should also note that Los Alamitos and La Habra Heights had both recently seen the resignation of firm partner Sandra Levin as their designated Colantuono & Levin City Attorney, so I don't know if those two references are a completely conflict free resume' builder, either.
All of which raises this large and obvious question. Should Josh Moran, a listed reference for City Attorney Highsmith, also be one of the 5 individuals on the City Council deciding whether or not to rehire her and her firm? Is this within the conflict of interest parameters of an RFP process, something that is conducted in order to ensure that we receive the best possible value for our tax dollars? Both financial and ethical? Does the possible ethical conflict here seem as troubling to you as it does to me?
It also raises the matter of Ms. Highsmith's judgement. Do we really want a City Attorney lacking in the kind of legal and ethical sensitivity likely shown in this application? Shouldn't a City Attorney representing us be aware of how this sort of thing could appear in the more exacting legal and governmental circles? Don't we want a City Attorney who can effectively play at even the highest professional levels?
And there is also this. Should this matter be considered by the City Council, and obviously it needs to at least be discussed, who will make the legal call? The Colantuono & Levin City Attorney seated at the dais alongside the ultimate decision makers on whether or not to rehire Colantuono & Levin?
If you're asking me, I think there are some problems here.