Galveston County commissioners didn’t decide Friday whether to eliminate the county’s in-house legal department.
But in recognition that the move could happen soon, commissioners decide to contract with eight outside law firms that would act in place of the department in the event it’s closed.
Commissioners unanimously deferred making a decision about eliminating the department, which employs six people, including four lawyers.
The votes leave the department’s future in limbo for at least another two weeks.
The special meeting in League City didn’t reveal much about the motive Commissioner Darrell Apffel and County Judge Mark Henry had for supporting the change.
It did however, reveal that a plan to replace the department had been in the works for at least a month.
Henry directed Paul Ready, an outside attorney already under contract with the county, to begin researching firms that might be able to represent the county in various forms of legal work. Henry confirmed after the meeting that he had given Ready the direction to do that work in February.
Ready also developed a transition plan that the county could use, should commissioners vote to eliminate the department.
Henry said Ready had been having “theoretical conversations” with the other law firms, and that Friday’s votes would allow him to negotiate real deals with the law firms.
“We’re not going to use them, until we get a chance to look at them,” Henry said.
On Friday, commissioners voted to retain Ready as the county’s general counsel. The agreement pays Ready $350 an hour. Holmes voted against hiring Ready.
Holmes spent much of the meeting questioning the way the proposal to eliminate the department had come to fruition. He claimed not to have known about the idea until it was put on commissioners agenda and said there had been a lack of transparency in the proposal.
“How can I vote on it, when I don’t even have all the information,” Holmes said. “Even if I was for it, how could I do it?”
During the meeting, Holmes said that the proposal looked like a “covert operation that was done behind the scenes.”
Apffel, who put the item on the commissioners agenda and has spoken the most forcefully in favor of the idea of eliminating the department, took exception to Holmes’ comment.
“How can I be more open and transparent than bringing it before the court to discuss,” he said.
It would not have been sensible to hold a workshop discussion about the proposal because of the possibility that the discussion would lead to the county’s attorneys feeling that their firing was imminent — and quitting or retiring before a transition plan was in place, Apffel said.
“You can’t eliminate a department without some pre-planning in place,” Apffel said. “It wasn’t being done to be spiteful or secretive. It was being done in case that it did go forward.
“If you were considering being fired by The Galveston Daily News, do you think they would come to you and say ‘We’re thinking about firing you?’,” Apffel said. “No, that’s not how you do it.”
Hours after the meeting, Apffel was still angry at Holmes and said he was “at war” over the issue. He called Holmes a hypocrite, because minutes after Holmes suggested having a consultant analyze the costs of making a switch in legal representation, he voted against hiring a consultant for a review of the county’s private health insurance broker.
With a group of outside lawyers now retained, the threat of being left without legal representation is gone and the county can get into more details about his concerns with the legal department, Apffel said.
Despite voting to engage the outside counsel, commissioners said the law firms would not be paid unless they were actually asked to do work for the county.
The county has not provided an estimate about how much it would cost to rely completely on outside attorneys to do all of the county’s legal work, although Apffel and Commissioner Joe Giusti both conceded that it would be more expensive.
The county legal department had an approved budget of $2.2 million, county officials said. When it was created in 1977, county leaders at time said it would be more cost effective to have in-house legal representation, rather than continue to employ outside law firms.
Holmes was not the only person to question the wisdom of eliminating the legal department.
Two elected officials, County Tax Assessor-Collector Cheryl Johnson and County Sheriff Henry Trochesset, said they did not support the idea of going to a completely outsourced legal department.
“With the information that I have right now, I’m not on board with this change,” Trochesset said.
The sheriff’s office works with the county legal department on open records requests, contracts, workers compensation issues and in situations in which the office has been or might be sued, such as over an in-custody death at the county jail, Trochesset said.
He said he planned to talk more with Apffel over the coming weeks about his reasoning for wanting to go to outside attorneys.
Barring a special called meeting, the next time the commissioners might discuss the issue will be at their regular meeting on April 8.