Lake Elmo council deadlocks on vote to hire prosecutor

Some members of the Lake Elmo City Council want a different law firm to provide prosecution services. With one member absent at the March 7 council meeting, council deadlocked in a vote and will continue its discussion March 21.

Lake Elmo hired law firm Eckberg Lammers only one year ago after cutting ties with long-time city attorney Dave Snyder and law firm Johnson and Turner. During the Jan. 5, 2016, council meeting, Councilmember Julie Fliflet pointed out that Snyder is Mayor Mike Pearson’s first cousin and alleged the relationship wasn’t revealed to the council until after Snyder was re-appointed in 2015.

Snyder began working for the city of Lake Elmo in 2008, and Pearson was first elected to the city council in 2010. According to the League of Minnesota Cities, the conflict of interest laws in Minnesota do not directly address conflicts that may arise out of family relationships and that the courts of other states generally have held that family relationship alone has no disqualifying effect on the making of a contract.

In a 3-2 vote, the council voted Jan. 5, 2016, to select the firm Kennedy & Graven to represent the city as general counsel, with Pearson and council member Justin Bloyer dissenting. Johnson and Turner had provided both general counsel and prosecution services to the city, however the city received only one proposal to provide prosecution services after Snyder’s departure. The council accepted the bid from Eckberg Lammers, with attorney Rebecca Christensen acting as the primary chief prosecutor and Joe Van Thomme and Thomas Lehmann taking on lead prosecutor duties and assisting on special cases.

In 2015, Lake Elmo was billed $129,523.70 in legal service by Johnson and Turner; $49,637.50 in prosecution plus $1,560 in reimbursed expenses, and $72,282.50 on general matters and $6,043.70 on specific litigation.

When Eckberg Lammers was selected, the fee schedule set was a retainer of $42,000 a year, billed in monthly installments.

This year the city council asked to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for prosecution services. Councilmember Justin Bloyer said he was unhappy that there was only one bid for prosecution services in 2016. This time around, proposals were due to city hall Feb. 14.

“We got about a half dozen proposals,” City Administrator Kristina Handt said. “I did have conversations with our current prosecutor and they are interested in staying on.”

Handt told the council that after she spoke with Eckberg Lammers, the firm offered to lower its fee by $300 per month — about 8.5 percent.

“I have not had any issues with Eckberg Lammers, and I am recommending the council stay with them for prosecution services,” Handt said.

Bloyer said there was not an RFP submitted by Eckberg Lammers, and asked when Handt had spoken with them.

“When you followed up with them, it was after all the other proposals were in?” asked Bloyer.

“Yes,” Handt said.

Fliflet said she was OK with renewing the
contract with Eckberg Lammers because the staff recommended it.
“They are the ones that are working with them — we don’t work with this firm,” Fliflet said. “I feel like that is important in this case.”

Fliflet made a motion to appoint Eckberg Lammers, but the motion failed in a tie — Fliflet and Pearson assenting and Bloyer and Councilmember Christine Nelson disenting. Councilmember Jill Lundgren was absent.

Bloyer moved to appoint Johnson and Turner for city prosecution services, citing a desire to work with a firm that has worked with the city for a length of time.

“The difference for me is highlighted in the staff reports,” Bloyer said. “You will see it many times up here — ‘I don’t know, I wasn’t here.’ We have lost our historical knowledge.”

“It’s not any sort of comment on [Eckberg Lammers’] professional services, but again that historical background, that historical knowledge is important,” Nelson said.

Nelson also had some concerns about the RFP process.

“How the reduction in fees after the fact came through didn’t sit great with me,” Nelson said. “But it’s not a dealbreaker by any means.”

Again, the council deadlocked in a vote to hire Johnson and Turner for prosecution services, with Bloyer and Nelson assenting and Fliflet and Pearson dissenting. The item was tabled until the next city council meeting.

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]