Galveston County Commissioners are scheduled to vote Friday about whether to eliminate the county’s in-house legal department.
The proposal, which commissioners have not discussed publicly, could mean the elimination of eight jobs at the county, and the hiring of eight private law firms to conduct the county’s legal business.
The proposal was broached in a special meeting agenda posted Tuesday. It was put on the agenda by Precinct 1 commissioner Darrell Apffel.
On Wednesday, Apffel said the goal of his proposal was to increase efficiency and responsiveness from the county’s paid legal advisors.
Without naming specific examples, he and other commissioners said they have sometimes been left waiting for progress or information from the attorney’s office.
“I’m talking performance; I’m talking response time; I’m talking efficiency in terms of time, not necessarily money,” Apffel said. “Can we get better response time to our projects? Can we get better service for the same money or with saving?”
County legal department Director Bob Boemer declined to comment about the issue on Wednesday afternoon. Boemer has worked for the county since 2013.
The county’s agenda does not name the eight law firms officials would contract with instead of using an in-house legal team, and a county spokesman on Wednesday did not respond to requests for the names of those firms.
The agenda does include a contract for legal services with the Houston-based Ready Law Firm that would pay attorney Paul Ready $350 an hour to provide general legal counsel to the county.
The county’s legal department was created by the commissioners court in 1977. At the time, former Galveston County Judge Ray Holbrook said hiring the county’s long-term outside council would save money.
The county attorney is a separate position from the county district attorney, an elected position that handles criminal prosecutions. The county attorney’s office handles civil litigation and a wide range of other legal work including public records responses, contracts and even official county resolutions.
When it was created, the legal department consisted of two lawyers, two secretaries and a workman’s compensation insurance supervisor.
Today, the department is budgeted to include five staff attorneys, a director, a paralegal and an executive assistant. As of Wednesday, two of the department’s staff attorney positions were vacant, officials said.
The department’s approved budget for the current fiscal year was about $1.6 million. But a spokesman on Wednesday said the budget had been amended since the budget was approved to about $2.1 million.
The county is budgeted to spend $697,074 on outside legal services this year. During the previous fiscal year, the county spent $484,634.
Since 2010, the county has spent $3.3 million on outside legal services. About a third of that amount is attributed to the civil rights lawsuit filed against the county in April 2018 over its bond practices, county spokesman Zach Davidson said.
The county did not provide an estimate on how much contracting all of its legal services would cost or save the county.
The decision about the department’s future might not necessarily be about how much work if currently being referred out, but about commissioners feelings on the work that currently still remains in the county office.
“There are some things that I have submitted to county legal that have not gotten done,” Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said.
For example, Henry said he’d asked the county legal department to work on an item about municipal law enforcement assistance programs six years ago and had not gotten word back about it.
Questions about the cost of a change to private representation and other details might be enough to give some county commissioners pause, Precinct 3 Commissioner Stephen Holmes said.
“With something of this magnitude, I would have preferred to have had more public discussion of exactly what we’re doing and how it’s going to work,” Holmes said. “Right now, I don’t know how it’s going to work.”
Commissioners are scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. Friday in League City.