With the Scottsdale City Council launching its search for a new chief attorney this week, several members are airing complaints about the legal office, describing it as poorly managed, at times secretive and slow to provide information.
"We need some bright, responsive, aggressive attorney protecting the public interest. Someone better about communicating with the public," Councilwoman Betty Drake said. "Don’t stonewall people if they ask for legitimate public records."
The council fired Joseph Bertoldo as city attorney in May after completing his annual review. Such reviews are conducted for all of the city’s top employees in closed council sessions.
Bertoldo worked for the city just 15 months. Before joining Scottsdale, he served as Flagstaff’s city attorney for 23 years.
Scottsdale’s next city attorney must do a better job of assessing what areas of the law the office needs specialists for, several council members said. The first should be zoning law, they said.
Scottsdale has spent $381,457 in legal fees with Ayers & Brown, which is representing the city as it sues Toll Brothers to condemn a piece of property within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, Pat Dodds, a city spokesman, said.
"Obviously, we need people who are familiar with the zoning laws and the way things have changed with the zoning law," Councilman Wayne Ecton said. "I would prefer to see more of that done in-house."
Numerous council complaints centered on how Scottsdale has farmed out legal work to private firms in recent years. In some cases, legal bills have cost taxpayers far more than if the legal office had handled it internally, Councilman Jim Lane said.
"We’re not a regular law firm where we’re looking to build up billable time," Lane said.
During the 2003-04 fiscal year, records show Scottsdale spent more than $1.6 million on private lawyers.
Though council members are restricted by state law from divulging why Bertoldo was fired, many of their problems with him have surfaced in discussing his successor.
Bertoldo did not return a call for comment Monday placed through the city attorney’s office. At the time of his firing, Bertoldo wrote in an email responding to questions from the Tribune that he did not fit in with the council.
Council members were quick to note that their criticisms do not extend to interim City Attorney Deborah Robberson and are not specifically targeting Bertoldo’s job performance.
But a majority of their complaints concern scenarios involving him.
During a January council workshop, members took an unofficial vote to decide which of two competing firms would be permitted to redevelop a downtown parking lot. The vote, which some observers argued was illegal, rankled officials and residents. One of the firms was not given time to address the council.
The next day, Bertoldo ruled the council action was not a vote, but represented "direction" to city staff members.
Complaints were filled with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office alleging Open Meetings Law violations. Ultimately, the council called for the item to be considered during a regular meeting with an official vote.
However, Drake said the council did not get a clear legal opinion on the matter.
"OK, Mr. B. Did we violate Open Meetings Law?" Drake said she asked at a February meeting. "He just said, ‘No.’ "
Bertoldo’s successor must be prepared to offer the council legal advice on myriad issues dealt with at city meetings, Councilman Kevin Osterman said
"That’s where the rubber hits the road. That’s where we have the citizens sitting right out in front of us and they’re watching us on Channel 11. And that is the very moment, where we turn to our attorney, that he or she has to be able to answer questions," Osterman said.
Scottsdale’s city attorney also must "exhibit the right kind of public presence and be articulate in public," Mayor Mary Manross said.
Aside from the lawyer’s presence, Drake added that the council needs "no-frills analysis of the issues."
Council members’ requests for information on a burgeoning legal issue sometimes take weeks for a response, she said. Even then, the response has been biased toward the city’s position, and the legal office has been resistant to bringing in outside experts with competing opinions, Drake said.
The council is scheduled to discuss how to go about a nationwide search for a city attorney tonight. When it comes time to actually select an applicant, Councilman Bob Littlefield said his vote will be for a good manager who is also a good lawyer.