In-house counsel proposed

At the Board of Selectmen’s meeting on Feb. 16, Selectman Michael Kaelin proposed vetting and employing an attorney to advise the town on legal matters. For the last 24 years, Wilton has relied on outside firms for this service.

Several selectmen said the evening’s discussion shouldn’t reflect current town counsel, but rather certain disincentives that a retainer agreement can present.

Kaelin suggested the selectmen first agree on the role of town counsel, and then have an “open and competitive bidding process” for the engagement. He said reviewing town counsel periodically was the town’s “legal obligation” and a best practice.

In Kaelin’s opinion, town counsel should function as an in-house general counsel, on the town payroll as a paid-hourly, part-time official.

The role of town counsel should be to advise other town officials on a day-to-day basis, he said. Matters that require specialized knowledge would be handled by outside specialists managed by the in-house general counsel.

To ensure quality of service and avoid overcharging, Kaelin said town counsel should find and recommend outside specialists if they’re required, negotiate their engagements with the town, supervise their work, and parse their bills.

As for the proposed town counsel’s prerequisite specifications, Kaelin said, “They’re going to have to have familiarity with the town charter, municipal law, election law, and ideally, they would have general counsel experience supervising other law firms providing legal work.” He suggested a search committee be formed for the head-hunt.

“My suspicion is, in the end, the model you’re proposing may incrementally cost us more,” Selectman Dick Dubow said.

“Where I think the big cost savings is is not in negotiating lower rates with attorneys, and not in scrutinizing their bills; it’s having less legals,” said Kaelin. Earlier he said that he’d been informed by current town counsel that part-time employment can be more expensive than retainer.

Dubow asked Kaelin to condense his proposal into a final draft and he agreed. First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice set a tentative date of March 1 for presentation of the finalized proposal.

A number of residents at the meeting addressed the discussion during the public comment period.

Anthony LoFrisco, an attorney, disagreed with Kaelin on prerequisites. He said the town doesn’t need someone familiar with municipal or election law. According to him, Wilton needs the best possible “legal mind” it can find.

“You want to find the best legal mind that you can get — the person who’s going to have absolute integrity, and who has good judgment in picking the specialists. A litigator’s probably your best bet. Litigators know a little bit about a lot of things; they can adjust themselves to all kinds of things.

“Municipal law experts or election law experts — they’re nice to have, but they’re a dime a dozen on the specialty circuit. Call them up if you need to.”

Simon Reiff, the attorney who represented Sensible Wilton in its suit against the town, said he agreed with Kaelin and supported his proposal, but pointed out sections in the Wilton Town Charter that he believes need to be amended for the proposal to be legally approved.

“The way this charter has drafted the obligations of town counsel I think presents potentially fatal conflicts of interest that can be very problematic,” he said.

“In my view, the scope of the town counsel’s role, as it is defined under the charter, is necessarily and impossibly overbroad.”

Alex Ruskewich, a founder of Sensible Wilton, said that “$108,000 is the minimum that was spent on Sensible Wilton” and argued that current town counsel invited that. He also at one point said that “the judge sided with us,” which Dubow took exception to as tantamount to slander.

“That the judge found against the town of Wilton is not true,” Dubow said. “There were no arguments even heard on the merits of the case.”

Dubow argued with Vanderslice and Kaelin that selectmen other than himself should publicly acknowledge any falsehood in Ruskewich’s remarks.

“When things are being misrepresented, I think I’d like to hear [it confirmed by] you that they are being misrepresented,” he said to Vanderslice.

“I personally don’t want to re-litigate it,” Vanderslice said. “People can come up here and say what they want to say.”

Kaelin agreed with Vanderslice that “we’d just be prolonging it.” However, he did put on record that he “doesn’t believe” the town was “accurately represented” by Ruskewich’s remarks.