Before Wednesday of last week, it would have been hard to imagine how to make a plan to privatize the county’s legal representation look worse than it did just on its face.
But Wednesday, one of the paper’s reporters filed a story outlining just a little of the background and a few of the details floating around the plan and it looks considerably more dubious in that tighter focus.
The story, published Thursday, mentioned that on March 29, when county commissioners voted 4-1 to retain eight private law firms, just in case they later decided to disband the legal department, they also received an 18-page plan outlining how that privatization might work.
Paul Ready, a Houston attorney who once worked in the county legal office, wrote the plan at the behest of County Judge Mark Henry. Ready also identified the eight private law firms the court voted to retain.
How that all came to be might strike an open government purist as a little on the dubious side, as does the plan itself.
Rather than issuing a request for proposals, or qualifications, as governments typically do when they seek professional services such as legal representation, Henry instead just unilaterally dispatched Ready to explore the whole cosmos of law firms orbiting in the general area and recommend a few to line up for the county’s legal work, and the considerable number of public dollars that would come with it.
This was legal, the judge argues, because Ready already was under contract to litigate for the county in a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union filed over the county’s bail practices. That contract apparently allows Henry to assign Ready to other tasks, and allows him to expend public money in others ways, without a vote of, or any discussion by, the full court.
It’s an interesting legal question, just how open-ended such a contract can be. Can it allow the judge to instruct Ready to file a case in the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, or to sue anybody the judge decides to sue for any reason?
The most dubious part of Ready’s plan, however, is the role it envisions for Ready himself.
Under Ready’s proposal, as the county’s general counsel, Ready would coordinate the work assigned to the outside lawyers and would personally handle “matters that are not well-suited for assignment.”
So just to recap — A private attorney accountable to no one but the county judge, for whom he works under an open-ended contract, handpicks eight law firms to which he’ll farm out all public legal work and the corollary public money, except for the work and the money the attorney decides to keep for himself.
Never mind comfortably arm’s length, the various parts of this deal all are wearing the same pair of pants.
As it stands today, the county has a six-person in-house legal department, eight private law firms on retainer and Ready on contract to do whatever the judge assigns him to do, along with acting as the county’s general counsel at $350 an hour.
That’s a remarkable achievement for a group of small-government conservatives.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Darrell Apffel, who has been the prime mover on privatization, on Monday recommended finding additional help to review the in-house legal department’s workload and case history to aid in the transition to the private firms.
Given the evidence, we’re compelled to agree with the assessment put forth by several commissioners that this effort is likely to cost taxpayers more than they had been paying.
Everything else might be sort of murky, but that much is clear.
What’s neither clear nor murky but has been completely absent from the public discussion so far is a rationale of any sort, much less clear and compelling, for wanting to make this fundamental change in the first place.
Without that, this project looks like a boondoggle.
• Michael A. Smith