Commissioners might, or might not, eventually vote to eliminate the county’s six-person legal department, but regardless of the final outcome, leaders must have a better idea of who is doing what, Commissioner Darrell Apffel said.
More than a week after commissioners broached the possibility of eliminating the legal department, Apffel on Monday recommended finding additional help to review the department’s workload and case history to either aid in a transition or provide additional information.
“I recommend finding someone to work with our people to further develop their lists,” Apffel said. “Having those would be helpful to the transition.”
Apffel made the recommendation after reviewing a list of work the county’s legal department oversees. The list included many older and less important cases and made it difficult to truly assess what staff is working on, Apffel said.
But, because the conversation happened during a commissioners workshop, no one officially voted on Apffel’s recommendations.
Monday’s meeting comes 10 days after commissioners met in a special meeting and took their first votes concerning the legal department. Citing a dissatisfaction with the responsiveness and performance of the in-house legal team, Apffel, the Precinct 1 commissioner, and County Judge Mark Henry spoke in favor of making the change.
Commissioners in the special meeting voted 4-1 to retain eight law firms that could act as the county’s legal representatives, if they ultimately decided to eliminate the department.
Several commissioners think they’re not getting a high enough level of production from the legal department, Precinct 4 Commissioner Ken Clark said.
Commissioners also received an 18-page plan outlining the ways a privatized legal department would work.
The plan was written by attorney Paul Ready, a Houston lawyer and one-time attorney in the county legal office. Henry in March said he had directed Ready, who was already contracted with the county, to come up with the plans.
Commissioners later voted to retain Ready as the county’s general counsel, an agreement that pays him $350 per hour. Precinct 3 Commissioner Stephen Holmes voted against that motion.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Joe Giusti on Monday also opposed disbanding the in-house legal department.
“It looks like a lot of these recommendations are already things we are doing, to some degree,” Giusti said. “Let’s not throw out something that has mostly worked through the years because of a few setbacks.”
Ready on Monday recommended, among many other proposals, setting up a secure online worksheet upon which all attorneys, both internally and externally, would document what they were working on and when — an idea that could be useful even if commissioners move to keep the legal department, he said.
Ready’s plan did not include a cost estimate about how much more it would cost the county to have an entire outside legal team. Such an estimate would be difficult to create, Apffel said.
Ready’s plan, however, did recommend making more use of a legal helpline run by the Texas Association of Counties for more basic research, and using some outside law firms to reduce the workload on county attorneys.