Council Approves Restructure of City Attorney’s Office

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In an effort to save money and make the department more efficient, Newport Beach City Council unanimously agreed this week to restructure the city attorney’s office.  

Council voted 7-0 on Tuesday to approve implementing improvements and efficiencies in the office, which will help reduce long term costs.

City Attorney Aaron Harp suggested downsizing two of the three assistant city attorney positions to deputy city attorneys.

“I think you’re doing an excellent job of making it more efficient,” Mayor Kevin Muldoon said to Harp.

The new arrangement will allow for a total of three deputy city attorneys (up from just one).

Councilwoman Diane Dixon suggested Harp work with City Manager Dave Kiff to ensure that the net head count of city employees does not increase.

Councilman and Will O’Neill moved approval of the item with the caveat that the third deputy city attorney position does not get filled until a vacant role is identified elsewhere in the city. Kiff agreed to make the determination within three months.

The remaining assistant city attorney position will assume more management and executive level responsibilities, according to the staff report.

A new salary range will be established for the single assistant city attorney position between the “bottom step” of $151,132 to the “top step” of $236,766, taking into account a number of variables, Harp explained.

“Why make the change?” Harp questioned. “The workload over the years has changed significantly.”

There has been a “large uptick” in the number of public record requests and a “significant increase” in misdemeanor complaints over the last several years, Harp explained. A lot of this work is better handled by junior attorneys, he said.

“I think that’s good because there is a cost savings associated with that,” he noted.

There is an opportunity to make these changes “due to the recent departure of assistant city attorney,” the staff report reads. Leonie Mulvihill recently left the position when she accepted a job at the city of Anaheim, confirmed Newport Beach spokeswoman Tara Finnigan.

There is expected to be “significant cost savings because there are less pension costs attributable to new employees” and the lower salaries of deputy city attorneys, the report notes. There is a “significant reduction in cost” between assistant and deputy city attorneys, Harp said.

Costs will further be reduced because, with the additional deputy city attorney, the city will perform more in-house legal services and be less reliant on outside legal counsel.

The trend is to bring more people in-house, as much as possible, and scale back on outside counsel costs, noted fellow attorney O’Neill.

Harp also included a reduced budget for outside counsel for the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Over the years staff have worked on a number of cost cutting measures.

When Harp became city attorney in 2011, the budget for the department – the total amount actually spent by the city attorney’s office – was $2.72 million for the 2010-11 fiscal year.

The very next year that figure jumped down – and has since hovered – around the $2 million mark.

The budget for the office during the 2015-16 fiscal year was about $1.84 million.

Personnel costs during that same 2010-11 time period amounted to approximately $1.6 million.

“We’ve been able to reduce that over time,” Harp said.

Personnel costs got to the lowest point in the 2014-15 fiscal year at about $1.17 million. That figure has slightly increased each year since, landing at about $1.22 million for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

Possible fiscal impacts of the recently approved changes depend on what rate people are hired in at.

“I expect that our budget would go down overall,” Harp said.

He estimated personnel costs to be about $1.32 million initially and the “fully loaded” rate down the road a few years to be approximately $1.38 million. It is still less than what the city was at in the 2010-11 fiscal year, Harp pointed out.

“It’s always a little bit tricky to know exactly what the impact is going to be,” he said.

The change also makes sense so that the department mirrors the structure of other departments in the city, Harp added.

Council members expressed appreciation and support of the changes.

“I appreciate the realignment,” Dixon said. “I commend your past, present and future commitment to cost savings and cost efficiencies.”

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