Curbing Village Legal Costs

 
Let's Take a Look at Legal Costs in the Village

First, let's ask why there's so much concern over an expense that makes up less than 1% of the Village’s total budget, and why there's not more focus on bigger expenses such as Village staffing and Village contracts? Use this link to review the Village Budget Fiscal 2021-2022 Adopted Supplement, line 30, p. 25 of the PDF (document p. 19), "Litigation Expenses".

If the agenda of a taxpayer group is to reduce the property tax burden, why focus on such a relatively small expense compared to the rest of the budget, and one that has virtually no impact on the amount of taxes residents pay?  And in particular, why emphasize blanket avoidance of lawsuits involving developers? Should developers not be held accountable to following local zoning laws?  

We do agree that the use of our tax dollars should be monitored. And curbing unnecessary legal expenditures would mean that tax dollars could be better spent on more important Village priorities. We should also consider how to minimize the time and attention Village staff and officers spend on legal matters that are not necessarily in the best interests of residents.

We recommend considering some reasonable solutions for reducing Village legal costs.

Analyzing the data

Curbing Village Legal Costs

Settle Rather than Litigate

Before spending residents' tax dollars on litigation, it makes sense for municipalities to review every lawsuit to analyze the cost versus the benefit. In other words, how much would residents be better off in comparison to how many dollars and how much time is involved if the municipality chooses to defend its position in court rather than settle?

 

The decision to pursue litigation should be based on the best interests of all residents.

 

For example, the Village has the responsibility to protect the quality of life for its residents which it does through its Comprehensive Plan and zoning laws. That's how the Village decides what the character of the community will be. To be sure developers are not in charge of the future of the Village, it may be necessary to protect enforcement of Village laws in court.  

However, there are other instances when residents would seem to be better off if the municipality chose not to defend itself against a lawsuit and instead settled.

 

Case in point, the Village has chosen to defend itself in court against a lawsuit that was not looking for money damages, but requested that Village officers and staff members take (free) training on governmental procedures. Common sense tells us it would be better for residents if Village officers get training rather than spend tax dollars to defend their right not to be educated. Learn more about citizens' lawsuits regarding Village good governance practices.

 

“Don’t tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I’ll tell you what they are.” James W. Frick

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Curbing Village Legal Costs

Hire In-House Counsel

The Village could also curb legal costs by removing the financial benefit litigation provides to contracted attorneys. The Village should consider hiring in-house counsel to oversee litigation and independently determine which cases are worth defending.  Without an incentive to rack up legal fees for litigation (our current system), an attorney-employee would manage outside counsel when defending a case in the best interest of the Village. 

 

Another benefit of an attorney-employee is that the attorney would notify the insurance carrier when the Village is sued. If the insurance company is not properly notified, Village taxpayers foot the bill.  The bottom line – taxpayers shouldn’t pay for costs that insurance would cover.   We would like to know if the Village always notifies its insurance carrier whenever a lawsuit is served. 

In the video clip below from LMCTV's 2017 Meet the Candidates, Part I, Mayor Tom Murphy speaks about the value of hiring in-house counsel. In the interview, Mr. Murphy states: "Part of the utility of in-house counsel was that that person kept you out of litigation... When you have an attorney who is billing you by the hour, he might not give you the advice about how to be cost effective as readily as someone who's just on a salary." 

 

Curbing Village Legal Costs

Revise Administrative
Procedures

Another way the Village could reduce legal costs would be to improve public access to documents. Village staff members must spend time on fulfilling Freedom of Information Law or "FOIL" requests for public documents that are not readily accessible on a self-serve platform.

 

Freedom of Information Law requires the public’s right to access records maintained by their government – an essential law in any democracy. Fulfilling FOIL requests is one of the primary responsibilities of municipal governments.

 

Rather than blame residents for making requests  to see records, let's look at how well the Village is set up to comply with FOIL. 

 

To start, the Village could put more documents on its website, such as detail for the audit of the bills, contracts and all documents related to building applications.

In addition, the Village should look into a modern, digital document portal so that residents could easily find the public records that they have the right to view, without having to overload staff with requests. For example, building department files should be made easily accessible without the assistance of staff to locate. In the long run, this would save everyone lots of time – and money!

This solution is also better aligned with the principles of fair and transparent government than one that criticizes residents who are simply seeking public records.

Learn more about citizens' lawsuits and the Village's response to FOIL requests.

 

“Dissent is what rescues democracy from a quiet death behind closed doors.” Lewis H. Lapham