In a split vote Monday, Galveston County commissioners moved to eliminate the county’s in-house legal department and further privatize legal work conducted on the county’s behalf.
Galveston County Judge Mark Henry and Commissioners Darrell Apffel and Ken Clark voted for the budget proposal that sealed the department’s fate. Commissioners Stephen Holmes and Joe Giusti voted against it.
The legal department will be phased out, and its work passed on to contracted attorneys by July 31.
The proposal to eliminate the department has hung over the court for months. In March, commissioners voted to retain the services of eight law firms, which would be used in place of the county legal department.
In the months before the meeting, Apffel and Henry had indicated their support for eliminating the department over what they described as a lack of production and responsiveness from the in-house attorneys.
After the meeting Monday, Apffel, who pushed most publicly for the change, said his vote was not motivated completely by personal feelings about the department’s performance.
“I think we can provide legal services more efficiently and more economically this way,” Apffel said. “I’m always looking at how to protect the taxpayers’ dollar and run our county more efficiently and more effectively, so I can’t point you to an event or a time that I started looking at this.”
The county did not produce an estimate about how much more or less privatizing the legal department would cost taxpayers.
“I believe that it’s going to cost less,” Apffel said, citing his own financial analysis. “There’s no way to tell. It depends on what kind of claims you’re given in a given year.”
He said he believed the county had found some savings already by purchasing insurance against lawsuits involving county law enforcement officers, county vehicles and county buildings. The insurance will provide the county with legal defense counsel in those lawsuits, he said.
The county already had outsourced large amounts of legal work, including major litigation such as an the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the county over its bail system.
The county’s in-house counsel handled public information requests, contracts, some litigation and provided advice and research to commissioners and other county departments, officials said.
The department has a budget of about $2.1 million to employ eight people, including six attorneys. As of Friday, the department employed three attorneys, including department head Bob Boehmer, and two administrative staff members.
The two staff attorneys who worked under Boehmer have both worked for the county for more than 20 years, officials said.
Boehmer declined to comment Monday.
Speaking after the meeting, Giusti said he had doubts about the benefit of privatizing the legal department, and feared the county would lose valuable institutional knowledge by axing the department.
“We’ve got a lot of questions from a lot of departments about what they do,” Giusti said. “It’s going to run away crazy, I think.”
Holmes said he worried that commissioners had not fully considered the costs of hiring outside attorneys for most of the county’s legal work.
The county legal department was created in 1977. Commissioners at the time said the department would save the county money by preventing some work from being assigned to outside counsel.
In the early 1990s, the office’s existence was challenged by a Galveston County resident, Ben Guynes, who argued the office shouldn’t exist and that its powers belonged to the Galveston County District Attorney’s Office.
The county argued that creating a department to help it deal with civil matters was within its power, and in 1993 the Texas Supreme Court narrowly upheld that argument in a 5-4 decision.
The county took three other votes regarding the legal department Monday. One allowed the county to advertise a request for qualifications from more private law firms. One created a legal services coordinator position, which will handle some administrative work under the new system.
The other created two new positions in the Galveston County District Attorney’s Office that will be dedicated to responding to open records requests.