By ETHAN HARTLEY -- A question regarding the status of whether or not the city has hired a head legal official - known as a city solicitor - evolved into a heated back-and-forth between City Council President Steve Merolla and chief of staff to Mayor Joseph Solomon...
*Editor's note: This story corrected a dollar amount of the cost of legal services currently being rendered in the city from $162,000 "thus far" to $162,000 budgeted for the entire budget year.
A question regarding the status of whether or not the city has hired a head legal official – known as a city solicitor – evolved into a heated back-and-forth between City Council President Steve Merolla and chief of staff to Mayor Joseph Solomon, Bill DePasquale, during Monday night’s meeting of the Warwick City Council.
The issue began as a discussion regarding a large property tax abatement that was approved by the council finance committee earlier in the evening, which involved a dispute between the property owner – Citizens Bank – and the city. Citizens Bank and the city went back and forth on property evaluations for the purchased parcel, and the city ultimately agreed to an approximately $18,000 abatement.
Although the issue didn’t involve litigation, Merolla took issue with the council not being briefed in an executive session about the abatement, something he said had traditionally happened in the past in matters similar to this one.
“There was a legal decision made by that department based on what they could or couldn't prove in an appeal,” he said of the abatement process. “And when we've had situations like that on large tracts of land, a hearing has been requested, a notice is put on our docket that we'll be adjourning to executive session and the city solicitor discusses the merits of case because it's litigation or potential litigation and gives this council an opportunity to ask questions and to give a recommendation. And then it's up to city council to take that recommendation, or it isn't.”
“So, my question to you Mr. DePasquale, is who is the city solicitor?”
DePasquale explained, as Mayor Solomon has when asked by the Beacon in prior interviews, that the city is currently utilizing multiple attorneys to fulfill the duties normally spearheaded by one solicitor.
Merolla pressed further, not satisfied with the explanation of having a solicitor by committee. He had council attorney John Harrington read the provision of the Warwick City Charter which grants the authority of the mayor to appoint a city solicitor, but only “with the advice and consent of the city council,” meaning that the council would have to approve any city solicitor working on behalf of the city. Only after that confirmation can the solicitor then subsequently appoint other attorneys to work with him or her.
“This council hasn't approved any city solicitor,” Merolla said. “I don’t understand how we don’t have a city solicitor. I don’t understand how we can't address our questions to a city solicitor, and I don't understand why when we're getting abatements we're not going into executive session so we can ask the city solicitor, or the city solicitor's designee, why or why we shouldn't follow that person's advice.”
DePasquale reiterated that the legal staff working on behalf of the mayor would always make themselves available to answer questions of the council, and that Mayor Solomon had gotten “the best people in each field to work on behalf of the citizens of the City of Warwick.”
“I would support him for doing that. And I think you should do that,” DePasquale said. “We've got the best labor lawyer around. We have one of the best solicitors around in capabilities for deciding matters outside the area of law. So, I don't know what the question is supposed to be about other than just asking the question. But I think Mayor Solomon has done a great job picking the best solicitors to respond to the constituency of this great city.”
But Merolla held firm to his point that no solicitor should be working on behalf of the city that wasn’t confirmed as per the charter.
“I'm asking the administration to follow the law and then have that person appoint whoever the mayor wants, and they could be great people,” Merolla said. “All I'm saying is that the law is there and the charter is there for a reason. I don't think that it's a good idea to violate the charter because people don't think that they need to follow it.”
The dialogue got more tense from there, with DePasquale saying he took issue with Merolla insinuating that the mayor was violating the city’s laws.
“How do you take issue with not following the charter? Merolla retorted. “I take issue with someone telling me, a chief of staff telling me, that we should ignore the charter of the city of Warwick.”
“Do not put words in my mouth,” returned DePasquale.
“Is this council going to ratify a city solicitor for the city of Warwick in accordance with the city of Warwick charter, or isn't it?” asked Merolla.
“The mayor is going to do what he feels best to run this great city,” DePasquale answered. “And if it means getting the best attorneys to fight on behalf of the people, that's what he's going to do. No more middling. We're not settling anymore. We're going to get the best of the best… I don't know how else I should answer that, Mr. President, but I'm very curious to the line of questioning relative to the topic that's on the agenda right now.”
“Maybe we should just become a dictatorship and we don't have to follow the charter at all,” Merolla said. “Because we're not approving and not following the charter.”
Soon after that comment, DePasquale walked out of the chamber without further response.
Asked on Wednesday to clarify the solicitor situation, Mayor Joseph Solomon confirmed there were four different attorneys working on retainer in various fields for the city.
They include Tim Bliss, who is responsible for labor law including personnel issues, arbitration and employment law; Peter Clarkin, who is responsible for land use and zoning law, tax law, real estate litigation and municipal Law; prosecutor Tom O’Brien; and Louis A. DeSimone Jr., who is responsible for handling issues related to licensing and the various city boards and commissions.
In addition to these attorneys, the city also retains the services of Steven Robinson and Vincent Ragosta “on an hourly basis for labor and education related duties as needed.”
Despite the high number of people involved in the city’s legal matters, Solomon contends that it is saving the city money as opposed to a traditional route of hiring a solicitor, who could then retain the services of a law firm to help with litigation issues.
“Though other municipalities have no hesitation in paying a million dollars-plus for solicitors in general, I'm proud to say that our expenditures for legal help in the city, aside from our everyday legal help type of thing, is significantly less,” Solomon said on Wednesday. “There's a significant cost savings in implementing the way we've been operating.”
According to the mayor’s office, the city has allotted $162,000 for the full year on the services of the four retained attorneys mentioned above.
Still, Solomon says he is actively looking for a solicitor – but will not settle until he finds someone who he feels can perform the job at a rate affordable to the city.
“Am I still looking for a city solicitor? Yes. But I'm also looking for a city solicitor that the city of Warwick can afford to pay,” he said. “I'm looking out for the wise expenditure of taxpayer dollars. Until I'm able to find someone of that nature, I can't see incurring millions of dollars’ worth of debt to bring on a firm to handle our legal problems.”
Solomon said that he was aware of the charter provision regarding council approval of a solicitor and that if anybody had questions about the status of the city solicitor, they could ask him.
“It's not something that I'm oblivious to, or that I don't know. I know the laws and ordinances of the city and I'm embarking and fulfilling the requirements of my job, and I have been,” he said. “If someone took the time out to pick up the phone and ask me what I've been doing for city solicitor, I've been doing it. But I'm not going to just jump and hire someone that I feel is not the right fit for the city or is too expensive for the taxpayers to afford.”
Reached on Wednesday to follow up, Merolla emphasized that he only wants to protect the city from potential legal issues, as he is concerned that attorneys who haven’t been lawfully appointed and approved may be open to challenges from opposing attorneys in the issues they litigate.
“Ethically attorneys have to go before judges and have to say they represent the city of Warwick, and I don’t know if they can do that if they haven’t been lawfully appointed,” he said. “My concern is that we get a challenge on that.”
In addition to having a point person to answer inquiries from the public and to brief the council on issues like the abatement that started the whole back-and-forth between Merolla and DePasquale, Merolla said he felt he wasn’t asking for much to simply follow protocol as laid out in the charter.
“My concern is that we follow the charter,” he said. “That the person be appointed and confirmed, that way nobody can challenge us in court and attorneys can state that they've been hired in accordance with the charter and that they validly represent the city.”