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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Reform the Law Department now

Tuesday night’s City Council docket exemplified exactly why Trenton needs to dispose of the staff of its current Law Department and return to the days when an in-house staff of city lawyers that lived within Trenton’s borders handled all of the legal work of the city.

The current situation – in which Trenton has City Attorney Denise Lyles and Special Counsel Joe Alacqua – for some unknown reason results in expensive city contracts being handed to numerous exotic law firms for all types of legal work in a very repetitive manner.

Tuesday’s docket actually had no less than $360,000 worth of resolutions and amendments regarding legal contracts handed to outside law firms. Back before the advent of Douglas H. Palmer as the city’s perennial mayor, the City of Trenton actually had a full staff of lawyers with a limited budget who were responsible for the vast majority of the city’s legal work.

That meant that only in rare cases would the city have to dip into its coffers to enlist the services of outside law firms that didn’t have offices within the city and whose lawyers did not live in the city, unlike the in-house staff of attorneys.

But now Trenton pays a city attorney and a special counsel hundreds of thousands of dollars, with little work product to show for it. The city attorney has actually abdicated the responsibility of advising City Council to the special counsel, in what some legal minds have criticized as a less-than-optimal arrangement.

Those same legal officials have also criticized the advice being delivered to those same City Council members by their special counsel.

It looks more and more like the legal opinions delivered in council chambers are generally made to influence council members into supporting administrative initiatives and reinforcing the policy positions of Mayor Palmer.

Municipal practices says that special counsels are usually hired only for a special circumstances and for brief periods of time for work on specific legal issues, but Trenton’s Special Counsel Joe Alacqua seems to have been hired as a sort of permanent counsel position with greater powers than the City Attorney, but in a position that allows him to live outside the city.

Future mayoral candidates ought to make reforming arrangements like Trenton’s legal practices part of their platform. Fixing this situation and returning back to the days of a larger in-house staff will save the city hundreds, if not millions of dollars and also bolster the city economy by having all of those lawyers take up residence here in Trenton.

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