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updated: 2/4/2014 8:05 PM

Des Plaines council narrowly approves city attorney's raise

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Des Plaines' city attorney is getting a pay raise, though aldermen were split on how much it should be.

Retroactive to Jan. 1, the law firm Holland & Knight will receive payment of $18,500 per month for retainer services, which includes providing legal advice on day-to-day city operations, contact with city staff members and council, preparation of documents for council meetings, and attendance at those meetings.

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That's a 32 percent increase from the $14,000 monthly retainer fee the firm has received since being hired by the city in August 2012.

Holland & Knight sought an increase since its attorneys said they worked more hours on city matters than expected. In exchange for the pay hike, the law firm has agreed to hold office hours at city hall one more day per week -- from three days to four -- even though city officials have access to their attorneys 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, according to City Manager Mike Bartholomew.

Three aldermen said at Monday's city council meeting that the proposed $4,500 monthly increase was too costly and favored a $2,500 increase instead. But they were on the losing end of a 4-3 vote approving the raise sought by Holland & Knight and recommended by Bartholomew, who is tasked with appointing legal counsel.

"When I set the $14,000 with the manager at the beginning of the engagement, I lived by it, even though it was very clear to me after six months that the amount of legal work that was pent up at the city was way beyond that," Peter Friedman, the city's general counsel, said during Monday's council meeting.

Friedman said the retainer amount is an estimate that allows the city to budget for a "bucket of legal services," but the law firm's letter of engagement with the city allows for a review of that amount after 18 months "so it's fair for both parties."

"Some are ignoring the facts that the hours we put in on retainer matters were way over the $14,000 -- so far over that the average hourly rate was $100. That is not sustainable," said Friedman, adding that his firm did 2,640 hours of legal work for the city in 2013. "It's not an increase. It's a decrease over the rate if you were billed hourly, which you are not."

Aldermen can choose to oppose the payment of bills to any vendor on the city's warrant register, which is voted on at every council meeting. That's been a regular practice of 4th Ward Alderman Dick Sayad, a frequent critic of Holland & Knight legal expenses.

Sayad said the city was "catering" to the law firm by authorizing the increase, when it could solicit other firms to do the city's legal work for less. The city paid Holland & Knight $671,000 last year, according to Sayad.

"You came in with $14,000 -- a year and a half ago that was it," Sayad told Friedman. "If a vendor says, 'I'm going to low ball,' and then a year and half later, 'I can raise it where I want' -- well not on my watch. I want to go with what's fair."

Aldermen Jim Brookman and Mark Walsten joined Sayad in voting against the $4,500 increase.

Nonretainer matters, including litigation and other reimbursable legal costs, are billed according to a scale of attorney hourly rates. Those items require prior consent and approval by Bartholomew.

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