Take the politics out of City Attorney's Office

By John Mannillo and Shirley Erstad

The Villager Op-Ed

April 12, 2017

“The City Attorney said so,” is often the response that we, the public, get from City Hall when we are confounded by some process, procedure, or final action that otherwise makes no credible sense. When we seek to understand a council vote or mayoral decision shrouded in mystery, “it’s the opinion of the City Attorney” is a great strategy to stop conversation and controversy. However, eventually one realizes these are not legal imperatives but political decisions providing politicians with political cover.

There's no need to take our word for this when it’s clearly laid out on the city’s website: “The mission of the Saint Paul City Attorney's Office is to deliver outstanding legal services to the city by providing sound legal advice and superior legal representation to city officials to help them achieve their goals.” Saint Paul’s City Attorney is not elected, but appointed by the mayor. He or she serves at the pleasure of the mayor, supervising a large group of other attorneys.

The city’s mishandling of the right-of-way maintenance program is a good example. In 2011, the City Attorney refused to settle an appeal by two Lowertown churches that believed their right-of-way assessments were disproportionately higher than most downtown buildings. The churches sought to settle the appeal for a fraction of the final award. Given the city’s intransigence, the only recourse for the churches was to file a lawsuit.

Rather than weigh the potential cost of a long, drawn out lawsuit that the city was not guaranteed to win, the mayor and City Attorney chose to fight the case over six years in five different court rooms, culminating before the Minnesota Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruling didn’t just impact the churches; it deemed Saint Paul’s right-of-way maintenance program to be illegal.

This process was hard enough on the plaintiffs which were fortunate to be represented by pro bono counsel. The case was devastating for the City of Saint Paul. Using taxpayer resources, the City Attorney took the case against the churches through appeal after appeal. A case that could have been settled in 2011 for $30,000 resulted in a $32 million budget gap and drastic cut in services to taxpayers in 2017.

Such examples are all too common. In 2015, Saint Paul taxpayers were forced to pay an $800,000 settlement to a private restaurant at the city-owned Como Lakeside Pavilion. Here again, the mayor and City Attorney allowed a contract dispute to turn into a six-figure lawsuit, at the taxpayers’ expense.

Recently, when asked for the annual report showing funds collected and expenditures made under the city's Parkland Dedication Ordinance, city officials once again hid behind the City Attorney. Even though a 2015 report had been generated listing collected fees, the City Attorney advised that this report didn’t need to be issued until after expenditures had been made. How can anyone evaluate the ordinance if information will only be released after decisions have been made? This so-called legal opinion is not in keeping with an ordinance calling for an annual report to ensure transparency and accountability.

The collection of Parkland Dedication funds is triggered by development projects, including the Major League Soccer stadium in the Midway area and the redevelopment of the Ford site in Highland Park. State law requires that these funds be collected when permits are issued. Why would the city make the legal determination that this information need not be shared with the public?

The above examples appear to be political strategies proposed by the mayor and carried out by the City Attorney, but there's something deeply wrong with the process. When pushed for an explanation, city officials will admit the City Attorney's Office represents the mayor and City Council, not the public.

Saint Paul STRONG recommends that we look for solutions that address this issue of political manipulation wrapped in legal justifications. Perhaps one solution is to create an elected City Attorney to represent and advise the public. The Ramsey County Attorney is an elected official that voters are able to evaluate and vote into and out of office.

What we have now may be good for elected officials and city staff, but too often has encouraged poor policy decisions. Saint Paul deserves better. Holding our elected officials more accountable is a good way to increase public confidence.

John Mannillo is the spokesperson and Shirley Erstad a Steering Committee Member of Saint Paul STRONG, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting citizen participation and open and transparent public processes at City Hall.