Friday, July 30, 1999
Making the most of town counsel
The selectmen gave thumbs up to new town counsel Deutsch Williams Brooks DeRensis Holland & Drachman, P.C., in an informal review held on July 13. The board will gather input from other town boards about their experience with town counsel over the last six months. They expect to formally reappoint the firm at their next meeting.
The review, which started as a clarification of what legal services are included in the monthly retainer, ended up as a discussion of how the town can more effectively use town counsel. Paul DeRensis, the principal contact at the law firm, said he was frustrated because the town does not take advantage of all he can contribute to the town within the retainer.
Under the current fee arrangement, the town pays $3,000 a month as a retainer which covers everything except labor issues, real estate transactions and litigation. Town boards request legal services through a form channeled through town administrator David DeManche. The revised form includes a judgment by town counsel whether the requested services fall within the retainer and, if not, estimates the cost. The new form has the advantage of eliminating confusion before it arises, said DeRensis. On the other hand, DeRensis did not want to make the process too formal so that boards are afraid to talk to counsel "for fear of having their name emblazoned all over a bill."
Encouraging more casual conversations
To encourage more casual conversations about issues of concern to town boards, DeRensis suggested that he attend selectmen's meetings once a month. If other boards know this is a "free" night, they can stop by with their questions. On the night of the all-boards meeting, for example, DeRensis was able to steer the housing authority in the direction of a funding source.
DeRensis gave other examples of how the town could draw on his experience. He said that he was in frequent contact with the attorney general's office and could have gotten a quick response to Nextel's challenge to the cell tower moratorium. In the past, he has provided input for cell tower bylaws. Regarding the debate over whether to hire a financial director, DeRensis said that he has written a financial director bylaw for another community and can give advice about the pros and cons of such a position.
DeRensis also volunteered to host information sessions for town boards about topics such as what the open meeting law requires, how to be a good committee member, what to put in minutes, and how to make findings. Selectman Michael Fitzgerald suggested that counsel also come to a few meetings of the financial team to explain department of revenue guidelines on how the town budget is prepared and how it is presented at Town Meeting. Selectman Vivian Chaput wanted some advice on how to achieve a modicum of affordable housing.
Both the selectmen and DeRensis acknowledged that they are in a transition period and are learning how to work with each other. While town officials have been surprised about some bills it has received, they have also been surprised about some advice. Apparently, the new law firm takes a more restrictive approach against development than the former town counsel, according to DeRensis.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito