FAIRMONT– On Wednesday the Fairmont City Council interviewed two law firms to potentially take over legal services for the city of Fairmont.
In April 2019, the council voted to end employment with its in-house attorney of more than 30 years, Elizabeth Bloomquist. After that the city used interim services until the spring of 2020, when it contracted with current city attorney, Mark Rahrick with law firm Smith, Tollefson, Rahrick & Cass, a general practice law firm which is based out of Owatonna.
City Administrator Cathy Reynolds said that over the past few months, several council members have inquired about looking into options for another city attorney. She further explained that there haven’t been specific complaints against the current firm, but that the council is interested in seeing what other options are out there.
In response to the inquires, Reynolds reached out to a couple different firms but waited to set up interviews until after the first of the year when the new city council members could join and be a part of the process.
Regardless of whether the city council decides to continue with Rahrick or select another firm for civil counsel, the Martin County attorney’s office will continue to handle criminal prosecution matters.
The firms interviewed on Wednesday were Flaherty & Hood, based out of St. Paul, which provided interim services for the city after its former city attorney was let go, and Kennedy & Graven, which is also based out of the Twin Cities area.
“Both of these are law firms that deal with municipal law, that’s their speciality,” Reynolds said.
While the city did have a single on-staff city attorney for many years, Reynolds explained that it is cheaper to utilize legal firm services. She also said that an added benefit is that both firms have people who specialize in employment law, labor law and land use law.
“An in-person (attorney) has to be an expert on everything otherwise you’re contracting the work out anyway to get the expertise that you need,” Reynolds said.
On Wednesday the city council, including new councilors Deb Foster and Jay Maynard, and new mayor, Lee Baarts, took turns asking the two firms questions. Because of inclement weather, both interviews were done over video call.
Background and experience for each firm was shared and some different questions were asked, which included how to deal with and direct a divided council and how to advise the city on projects.
One question asked to each was what some of the biggest legal challenges facing local government and the city of Fairmont are.
Troy Gilchrist with Kennedy & Graven, who would be working directly with the city, said that cities are currently wrestling with THC regulations and that it has new wrinkles to it because the law is uncertain right now.
He also said that massive data practice requests could be problematic, especially in a community the size of Fairmont.
“I’ve found that those can be really disruptive to a community. Even in a community that’s two or three times your size, it draws a lot of resources and costs a lot of money because we have to look through what could be tens of thousands of paper,” Gilchrist said.
Chris Hood with Flaherty & Hood said he thinks cities will continue to face issues with finances and the economy. Along with that, he said that a number of cities are looking at major projects, and mentioned community centers and ice arenas, which he said can be very challenging projects.
“All of this aging infrastructure that cities have in terms of buildings, roads, utilities, those are really big challenges… from a financing and tax standpoint, I think it is more challenging to deal with those issues,” Hood said.
A question about timeliness and availability was also posed. Gilchrist said he prefers that people be upfront and let him know if information is needed in hours or if it could wait a few days. On the other hand, he said it helps if cities communicate what they need in a timely manner when they’re able to.
Another question about how the firm uses its different practice areas to support the city was asked. Hood said that they have various teams in their office which include municipal, environmental, labor and employment and lobbying.
“In terms of the city’s interfacing with us, usually we designate a lead and those inquiries would go to them and they would determine…who to look at it,” Hood said.
As for whether representatives from either firm would be physically present for council meetings, they each said they’ve found that attending virtually is just as effective as being physically present. However, they also both said they would prefer to be present via video call rather than just by phone line and that they could be physically present if need be.
Following each interview, the council members filled out individual rating forms and had a brief discussion on their first impressions. Reynolds said they’re looking to make a decision in the next few days.