|Connecting the Dots
November 21, 2004
Like a bad penny, the request by the City Attorney’s Office to contract with Trisha A. Aljoe for temporary legal services has turned up week after week and been subsequently removed from the agenda. Only this time, the City Council approved it on a 6-3 vote, with Butt, Rogers and Viramontes dissenting.
There are a number of strange characteristics of this contract that bear further scrutiny. According to the Interim City Attorney, who serves at the pleasure of the City Council, the contractual services will address a backlog of work primarily related to the collection of some $1.4 million in delinquent Port of Richmond rent payments as well as drug house litigation, code enforcement and abatement and police record requests.
Unlike private sector law firms, the Office of the Richmond City Attorney does not require time sheet records from its employees, and there are periodic allegations from other City employees and the public that some City Attorney staff members keep bankers hours or worse and that any work backlog is due not to insufficient staff but staff inefficiency. Unfortunately, without time records, there is no way to verify how many hours municipal attorneys actually work and what they work on. The City Council is responsible for evaluating the performance of the City Attorney but has very little information to go on. Some City Council members believe this is just fine, but this is the same kind of attitude that led to the recent fiscal meltdown.
Without time and expense records, there is no way the City Attorney’s Office can be managed in a way that tracks workloads, priorities, costs and allocation of resources. Cost recovery is a growing objective in the City Attorney’s Office, as it is throughout the City, but there is no way to balance revenues against expenditures without timekeeping.
Apparently, Ms. Aljoe was selected for this work without any competitive process, and she brings some baggage with her that the City Council should have but did not explore. The Monterey County Weekly had this to say about Ms. Aljoe:
“Speaking of positions of authority, Salinas'' Deputy City Attorney Trisha Aljoe is wielding hers like a Christian during the Crusades, and leaving us to pay for her approach.”
“In addition to regularly running afoul of Judge Richard Silver with her bullish, unbending advocacy of the Salinas gang injunctions, Aljoe single-handedly sabotaged last week''s settlement conference, the last best chance to avoid a costly court battle paid for by taxpayers.”
“After watching her in action, I was not at all surprised to find out she was a prison correctional officer before turning to the law. Beware when the cops start making the laws, at least that''s what my great-grandaddy the hemp farmer always said.”
You would think the City Attorney’s Office would be on top of the legal niceties of service contracts, but in this case, the Interim City Attorney could not decide whether Ms. Aljoe was an independent contractor or an employee. At first, he said she was an independent contractor, but then waffled, eventually saying she was a contractor, then an employee, then both, and ultimately neither. She is being paid like an independent contractor but walks and talks like an employee.
Whether or not Ms. Aljoe is an independent contractor may seem like a trivial distinction, but it could have significant legal and financial consequences. For example, the City is self-insured, including for workers compensation. If Ms. Aljoe were seriously injured on the job, such as in an automobile accident, the City could be liable for huge workers compensation payments. To let something like this slide through the cracks is sloppy legal work of the worst kind.
Despite the City Attorney’s claim that Ms. Ajoe is a contractor, the contract states: “Special Counsel’s performance hereunder shall be under the direction and supervision of the City Attorney.” Supervision is one of the distinctions that both state and federal law make about employees versus contractors. The City Attorney conceded that he didn’t know much about these matters.
The contract provides for no insurance requirements for Ms. Aljoe, including professional liability insurance, apparently a departure from past practice with outside attorneys. Although there is a requirement in the contract for a Richmond Business License (a recognition of intent to recognize her status as a contractor), there is no requirement that she have a valid California driver’s license (something the City Attorney’s Office has dwelled on of late) or even a California attorney’s license. There is no evidence of background checks or even reference checks. Ms. Aljoe has been touted as perhaps the foremost California expert on municipal code enforcement and the author of the defining handbook on the subject. So why is she willing to work as a consultant to the City of Richmond for only $80 an hour when other attorneys in private practice charge the City many times that?
At the same meeting, the City Council was asked to extend a contract with Robert Half Legal, a temporary services firm, for a contract legal assistant at $35.00/hour. The City Attorney’s Office maintains that they have not been able to hire a full time employee for this position, which has been vacant since July. According to California Employment Development Department, workers in this category make an average wage of $23.90/hour. Why the City of Richmond cannot find a qualified legal assistant raises questions about not only the City Attorney’s Office but also Richmond’s Human Resources Department. At least, Robert Half Legal carries insurance for the temps that it provides to Richmond.
This one City Council member believes that this episode is just one of many examples of sloppy work that evidence a long overdue need for a total housecleaning of the Office of the City Attorney to make it more efficient, responsive and effective. Employee performance reviews have not been conducted for the last two years. The signs are there, and one only has to connect the dots to see that the risks of the status quo are too large to ignore. The City Council, unfortunately, continues to stick their collective heads in the sand and pretend that everything is just great.
Beyond the City Attorney’s Office, there is a significant problem with a growing number of people working in the City of Richmond under various fuzzy contractual relationships, some of which may be illegal and others that pose potential problems with resolution of disputes, procedures for termination and discipline. In response to the Grand Jury investigation of 1999, the City started assembling an Administrative Procedures Manual, which can be accessed on the City’s web site at http://www.ci.richmond.ca.us/apmanual/. The Human Resources Department, which is in the middle of more potential problems than perhaps any other department, does not even have a section in the Administrative Procedures Manual.