Judges to county: Bucks stop here

"The county's top judges told commissioners Wednesday they will not approve another contract for outside legal counsel Keith Dearborn or his firm. Superior Court Justices Vickie Churchill and Alan Hancock said the nearly three-quarters of a million dollars of county money already spent on Dearborn for his oversight of the county's growth planning process was astonishing and far in excess of what they had originally been asked to approve.Dearborn, a Seattle-based land-use attorney, was retained by the county late in 1998 at a cost of $60,000 to help coach the Planning Commission, Planning Department and board of commissioners through the completion of the county's Comprehensive Plan for growth. But several supplemental contracts and amendments later, the fees for Dearborn and his law partner and wife Alison Moss have topped $722,000, with no definite end in sight. Churchill and Hancock said that Dearborn and Moss have been draining an average of more than $30,000 per month from county coffers.That is, in our judgement ... a stunning amount of money, Churchill said to commissioners during a staff meeting Wednesday. It is grossly excessive.The judges' announcement underscores the high price the county is paying for growth planning, but the commissioners say Dearborn has earned his paycheck and insist they will try to find another way to keep him involved.By law, the presiding judge in the county must approve all county contracts with attorneys other than the government's own prosecuting attorney. Up until now the judges have approved contracts totaling only $235,000 for Dearborn and the Dearborn and Moss firm. The rest of the $722,000-plus has been approved directly by the commissioners, who are allowed to amend the contracts by majority vote as needed. The current contract with Dearborn and Moss expired Friday. The commissioners had asked Churchill and Hancock to approve a new contract through the end of the year with costs not to exceed $200,000.We can't in good conscience allow this to continue, said Churchill. I'm not going to continue to put my name on this. It's a blank check.Hancock said he and Churchill assess outside attorney fees on a regular basis. He said the most the two have ever authorized prior to Dearborn was $75,000 for a murder case.The commissioners admitted the costs of planning are high but said the judges' decision was short-sighted and poorly timed. Dearborn's firm is currently defending the legality of parts of the county's Comprehensive Plan. In fact, at the same time the judges were meeting with the commissioners Wednesday, Dearborn and Moss were across the street arguing the county's position before the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board.I acknowledge that you have the right to do what you're doing, commissioner Bill Thorn said to Churchill and Hancock. But I don't think you understand the problem and I don't think you understand the complexity. We're not looking at routine attorney work.Thorn and fellow commissioner Mac McDowell told the judges that Dearborn literally rescued the county's floundering planning process and has brought it nearly to completion.The thing was in shambles, McDowell said of the county's pre-Dearborn planning. He made sense out of our process.McDowell said other counties have spent millions of dollars on their plans and are nowhere close to finished.We hired him at the end of '98 and here we are at the beginning of 2000 and we are the first county to have a completed plan and regulations, he said. In that respect, Keith has earned more than his keep.But Churchill and Hancock pointed to expenses they considered out-of-line, excessive or the result of poor oversight.In March, one response brief cost the county $30,000 to $46,000. It must have been one heck of a brief, Churchill said.Churchill also singled out a cost of $2,450 for copies billed by Dearborn.You can buy a copy machine for this amount of money, she said.Hancock questioned why the county was paying Dearborn and Moss at attorney rates of $180 per hour when much of their work was actually planning consultation. He said planning consultants normally charge about a third as much. The judges also expressed concern with the county's apparent lack of control over Dearborn's hours, pointing out instances where Dearborn billed for more than 20 hours of work in a single day.McDowell said he wasn't surprised by bills for long days. He said he was often able to reach Dearborn at his office late at night working on the county's plan.Under the proposed new contract, Dearborn and Moss had offered to lower their hourly rate from $180 to $100 per hour for some work. This was in response to the judges' request for some sort of cost containment.Commissioner Mike Shelton said that pulling Dearborn and Moss out of the process now could jeopardize the completion of the plan and call into question the value of the money already spent.McDowell questioned the judges' opinion that the Island County Prosecutor's Office could realistically do what Dearborn is doing - providing legal counsel, land-use planning guidance, overseeing negotiations with groups appealing the Comprehensive Plan and attending numerous meetings and hearings.Prosecuting Attorney Greg Banks said that his office could step in and serve as legal counsel for the county but he did not commit to the other aspects of Dearborn's job.On the other hand, Banks said he basically agreed with Churchill and Hancock's decision.$700,000 funds my whole office for a year, he said. It doesn't seem like you're getting the value for your money.McDowell said the commissioners still have the authority to rehire Dearborn as a planning consultant rather than an attorney thus avoiding the judges' approval process."

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