I think that’s about to happen. This time in the still of the night, in the quiet of a nearly empty Bradley Room at the tippy-tail end of this coming Tuesday night’s County Council meeting. All but the staff and Council will have left the room much earlier. The few live-streamers will have turned off the computers, maybe to call a friend about breaking news. Probably no one will be waiting to comment, as the action’s over.
(This foretelling is based on a reading between the lines of Sunday’s Star Democrat article: Item VII. B. could signal big happenings regarding the Talbot Boys Statue. If so, after a decade of argument, it will rightly go in the books as one of Talbot County Council’s Big Meetings! I sure hope that item passes.)
I don’t really know what’s going to happen of course, but the end-of-meeting scenario above is quite possible. When people leave after VII.B, the meeting isn’t over. An hour later the Council will come to the eighteenth and very last item of the night: “Item F” under the County Manager’s Report. “APPOINTMENT OF COUNTY ATTORNEY.” Four little words. No one there to watch.
Anyone who’s been reading about Lakeside (and if you somehow know nothing about it, it’s that 2501 home subdivision coming PDQ to Trappe…do some homework—check out “Trappe The Waste” Facebook page) knows that there is considerable controversy over the integrity of the County procedures related to its approval. And anyone who read “Focus on Talbot” last week knows that I—and others, including attorneys–am very concerned about the wrong but very convenient advice given by our Acting County Attorney to the Council members supporting Lakeside.
Compounding it all, at the “tippy-tail end” of this coming Tuesday night’s County Council meeting, when no one is watching, I believe a majority of the County Council intends to approve a contract making the “Acting” County Attorney our official and permanent “County Attorney.”
Try as I might, I have not been able to see the actual contract the Council intends to approve, but what I understand is bulleted below. (My effort to get and report on the “true facts” has been thwarted by a Talbot County government that has not provided copies of the applicable documents even under a September 1st Public Information Act (“PIA”) request seeking material that is very clearly in the public realm. And of course the “Office of Law” handles PIA requests. Since the County won’t produce the documents, I must tell you that the following is not 100% confirmed, but is what I understand:
- Our Acting County Attorney, Mr. Thomas, is an attorney with the six-lawyer law firm of the McLeod Law Center (https://www.mlg-lawyers.com) of Chestertown, with a second office in Denton. (No office in Talbot County.) The firm highlights six “practice areas,” the first of which is “Real Estate,” and the fourth “Local Government Law.”
- A short-term contract was signed in February, and I cannot determine if there was an public solicitation or open discussion of that process. In any event, the McLeod firm was hired on a hourly basis to provide all legal services to the County, including not only the services of Mr. Thomas, but others as needed (such as his associate Mr. Meehan who has been designated the “independent counsel” representing the Planning Commission (think Lakeside) and is also representing the County in my lawsuit to require the Council to properly hear the Petition I filed in May, now supported by over 250 other citizens.)
- Every lawyer I have spoken to is skeptical that some “hourly rate” arrangement is financially sensible, compared to hiring a qualified attorney as has been done for the last 25 years.
- The County Charter provides for the engagement of an individual person to be County Attorney, and its unclear how a corporate contract meets some criteria (e.g., residency requirements, especially when the firm does not even have a Talbot County Office.)
- The existing contract was for a short term, and apparently having well served the objectives of the persons on the Council making decisions about engagement—i.e., the majority that so strongly supports Lakeside, It appears that contract is about to be made permanent. That is, if the Council on Tuesday night acts on “item X.F,” the eighteenth and final item after a long night, with no one watching. All the information we citizens have about it is four little words: “APPOINTMENT OF COUNTY ATTORNEY.”
Any Council member or any citizen who cares about this appointment to arguably the most important and powerful post in Talbot County government, on Tuesday night would ask these questions…before then moving to defer a decision:
- Did Talbot County have an independent lawyer review the contract on behalf of the County? Contracts for legal services can be tricky, potential for many subtle nuances. Were appropriate protections for the County included? (The McLeod firm’s counsel or advice is obviously inapplicable and in fact it would be unethical if provided.)
- Did the Acting County Attorney advise the County to have independent counsel negotiate the contract? To review it thoroughly? Did that happen? To whom (if anyone) did that attorney report the results of its review? Did all County Council members receive counsel or written comments?
- If not an independent lawyer, who negotiated the contract on behalf of the Talbot County? The County Manager? All Council members? A subcommittee of members, duly appointed? Has that party ever previously negotiated a contract for legal services for a complex organization like Talbot County, where responsibilities are not singular? Describe the process—roughly over what time period, who involved, etc.?
- The Charter provides for an individual to serve as County Attorney. How does the proposed contract square that circle, e.g., residency issue, when the contract is with a Corporate entity that has no office in the County? Does the contract bar the law firm from assigning someone who is not a resident of Talbot County?
- Are the County’s termination rights clear and unrestricted, free of any possible future claims from service provider? Never want to be in suit with a lawyer!
- Was this the product of a solicitation for legal services, i.e., an “RFP”? If not, why not, and what provision of law allowed for sole-source engagement” If an RFP, did others respond, and were they interviewed?
- Is there any reason why the public cannot see this proposed contract? If there are valid confidentially issues, can it not be redacted appropriately?
- Is this emergency legislation? Is there any reason action on it cannot be deferred?
Until actual contract language is reviewed (preferably by an independent attorney), there is no way to understand whether or not any problem exists with this proposed contract. Action should be deferred until these questions are answered for the public’s understanding.
The issue of the integrity of our government processes is very important, whatever you want the Council to do with that Confederate statue. Folks, we’re all in this together.
Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years.