Galveston County’s six-member legal department is managing dozens of legal matters on behalf of the county, according to a report delivered to county commissioners on Monday.
The question facing commissioners now is whether the amount of work justifies the continued existence of the department.
Since March, county leaders have debated whether to eliminate the legal department in favor of outsourcing the work to private law firms.
County Judge Mark Henry and Commissioner Darrell Apffel have said they are dissatisfied with the department’s performance, while other commissioners have questioned whether outsourcing would save money or result in better work.
Those questions led the county in March to delay a vote on eliminating the department. In April, commissioners asked for a review of work being done by the legal department.
That review was delivered Monday.
As of May 30, the county legal department is handling 46 case files, according to the report submitted to commissioners by attorney Paul Ready, the county’s legal counsel. The cases include four lawsuits in litigation, 29 floodplain regulation violation issues and 18 public information requests.
Another 21 issues, including nine pieces of litigations, are being handled by outside attorneys.
Ready’s memo does not make a recommendation to commissioners, though it attempts to put the legal department’s work in context.
Most of the legal department’s work comes in the form of providing advice and support to commissioners and county employees. The second largest amount of work is responding to records requests.
Ready is the creator of the plan to privatize the department. Ready was ordered by Henry in February to create the plan. The plan proposes delegating county legal work to eight different local law firms, while Ready remains the county’s general counsel.
It remains to be seen whether commissioners will use the information to justify totally eliminating the department.
“If these four were partners in a law firm and drawing the salaries that they’re drawing, and had this amount of work, they couldn’t survive,” Apffel said.
The legal department has a budget of about $2.1 million. The department is budgeted to have five attorneys and three support staffers, though right now it has two vacant positions, including one attorney position.
The commissioners on Monday did not vote on anything regarding the legal department and did not immediately declare when or whether they intended to vote on the future of the department.
Commissioners asked the county’s chief financial officer to estimate the hourly costs of the legal department and deliver the analysis at a future meeting.
That financial analysis might dictate the final decision of the department. Commissioner Stephen Holmes, who opposes the plan, said the cost of privatizing should be among the commissioner’s top concerns.
“One of my biggest concerns would be that we don’t have a good estimate on what it’s going to cost to outsource our entire operation of county legal,” Holmes said.
The county had spent $1.3 million on outside legal advice since the beginning of 2018, Holmes said. Holmes said that if the county was going to pay a large amount for legal services, he wanted a person working full time for the county.
The commission’s next regular meeting is scheduled for June 17.