CANMORE – The Town of Canmore could soon have its own lawyer to help mitigate a range of legal issues it faces throughout the year.
During council's finance committee meeting held on Nov. 7, elected officials discussed the option of adding in-house legal counsel to its payroll, which administration said would better serve the Town as well as keep legal costs incurred in-house.
Council heard that currently legal expenses are budgeted at $150,000 annually, and establishing in-house counsel would cost $170,000, an estimated $20,000 increase to the operating budget.
According to Chief Administrative Officer, Lisa de Soto, the concept of in-house counsel was something the corporate strategic team has been looking at since earlier this year.
“This was one of the items we committed to looking at,” said de Soto.
“I believe council’s well aware that our former general manager of municipal infrastructure had some legal background and capacity that he had just picked up through the organization, and was essentially acting as a legal advisor for us in many portfolios and files, and it was just routinely taking him away from his core duties.”
Noting that this was not a part of the former manager’s position, rather the Town was able to capitalize on a wide range of expertise, de Soto said she believes in-house legal counsel needs to be considered, as council has come to a “critical juncture.”
“We believe we’re at that critical juncture in our organization where the complexities of the issues we’re dealing with and the volume of issues we’re dealing with need to be better managed from an overall risk mitigation perspective,” she said.
“The lion's share of the work, we believe, can be completed by in-house legal counsel if we moved it in house. Certainly some specialty files, whether that’s in planning, litigation and the occasional HR matter, might also require external counsel advice and if we get into litigation certainly we would be using external counsel.”
De Soto said while it would cost more overall, the additional $20,000 doesn’t decrease the benefits the Town would see from having a lawyer on hand.
“We think for the additional $20,000, it’s certainly beneficial to move in this direction,” de Soto said.
Mayor John Borrowman said his expectation would be that the in-house legal counsel would have expertise in planning issues.
“Clearly one of the areas of expertise we’d be looking for is in planning issues, but some of our planning issues are complex,” said Borrowman.
De Soto said the Town would be looking for someone who has a general understanding of a wide array of council-related issues such as bylaw agreements, contracts, etc., as well as case manage all the Town’s legal files, which she said is currently managed by a “myriad of different people in the organization.”
The Town would be able to access an additional $35,000 int he operating budget in case of litigation, which Borrowman wanted to ensure was a large enough number. De Soto said typically the budgeted $150,000 for legal fees has been enough, so she doesn’t foresee an issue with the proposed amounts.
Coun. Esmé Comfort brought up the issue of an in-house lawyer lacking the big backing a law firm provides.
“When you hire a firm and they assign you a lawyer, or a couple lawyers, to deal with whatever the issue is, if you have an in-house lawyer that individual lacks that back-up or expertise, and I’m just wondering if there’s any discussion on that issue,” Comfort said.
While there’s a benefit to having a large firm on retainer, de Soto pointed out that when contracting out the service, a lot of time is spent bringing the lawyers up to speed on whatever issue is at hand, which in turn wracks up a bill quite quickly.
“The initiation meeting on the issue can be an hour or two or more of a lawyer's time, where as having in-house counsel here, [they would be] well aware of the issue, participating in the corporate strategic team meetings and up to speed,” said deSoto.
“I think your question is just about back-up, so we would have to use external counsel for issues that are more complex, or that the in-house counsel might need some advice on, but it would be I think a much less cost than if we were strictly just going to external counsel, because they would be able to do a bunch of the research in-house.”
Coun. Joanna McCallum raised concerns over the numbers provided, indicating an in-house lawyer typically requires an assistant.
“I just think about what lawyers do, even just a lawyer here in town that deals with real estate transactions, they’re not one man shows,” she said.
De Soto said the Town has added capacity in the executive office admin role this year and that the other administrative employees would be able to help with the work.
“In fact, the person we added there [executive office admin role] has a bit of a paralegal background, so there’s an advantage to that and I believe there is some capacity within our executive office admin assistant team to support in-house counsel as well,” said deSoto.
Coun. McCallum said while she isn’t surprised to see this come up at council, but she still has questions.
“I feel like we hired that person in the executive office for a different function rather than supporting a lawyer, so that’s what I don’t want to see that robbed – the functions we’ve already planned for that role,” she said.
“It’s an interesting proposal … I wasn’t necessarily shocked when it came forward, but I still have a lot of questions and I’m not sold necessarily that we’re there yet. I feel like we’re still going to need more legal counsel and it might be, even though to spend all that time bringing lawyers up to speed, I think that’s just going to be the nature of the beast for a little while.”
De Soto added the Town would be looking for someone with an understanding of municipal law.
The topic of in-house legal counsel still needs to be presented at a regular council meeting and was not voted on by elected officials at the finance committee meeting.