The Parsippany-Troy Hills Township Council discussed the establishment of a legal department within the municipal administration at its Tuesday night agenda meeting at Town Hall.
Councilman Jonathan Nelson proposed the idea after researching how having an in-house attorney is handled in two municipalities similar in size and scope to Parsippany, Wayne and Howell townships.
"It really isn't anything different from how we're set up now," Nelson said, noting that his plan would only set a cap on how much the municipal attorney would make, and makes the attorney a town employee. He said the lawyer, who would have backup from go-to law firms, potentially could save the township hundreds of thousands of dollars over the long term and help the administration, clerk and department heads.
Nelson was quick to assert that his suggestion was not a criticism of current Township Attorney John Inglesino or the quality of his work.
"I wasn't even thinking about him when I thought this up," the councilman said.
And Nelson asked the council not to take any action, but merely to think about the idea.
"Parsippany is by far the largest township in Morris County, one of the largest in the state," he said. "I'm hoping that my fellow council members, in coming months, discuss this. I respectfully ask that we create a small committee to look into this and see if it's worthwhile."
Councilman Michael dePierro was skeptical.
"I'm all for saving money, but I don't want the town to be penny wise and pound foolish," he said. "We get a lot out of having a law firm that interfaces with other municipalities."
He said the contacts and knowledge of major, well-know law firms that represent the town give Parsippany the power it needs to get things done.
DePierro offered an example of a recent legal case wherein the town was being fined for $300,000 by the state Department of Environmental Protection over alleged violations of the town's sanitation and incinerator departments.
"We fought this in the courts for many years," the venerable councilman recalled. "We had a set of our municipal attorneys get involved in that. They had numerous contacts at the DEP and as a result it saved the town $300,000.
"No local lawyer is going to have the municipal knowledge or the clout or the contacts to represent us properly," dePierro said. "Sometimes have three, four issues going on at one time, too much for one person to handle. What do we do when it's too much for one lawyer, outsource? In a town our size, I don't think you're going to save money. You're going to be less efficient."
"If I felt the town would be hamstrung in any way, I wouldn't propose this," Nelson said. What I'm suggesting is that it be a part-time position in name only. I believe the big firms in the state would be more than happy to work for a flat fee on a yearly basis, and we're not taking away their ability to [run their private] practice . The idea is not to pull from recent law school grads with little experience."
Council President Brian Stanton wondered if the town would be paying more for hour than the $150-$220 per hour now given to Inglesino and his law firm. The statement launched a discussion over how much the town attorney, reputed by some to be making millions off of Parsippany, actually makes.
"I guarantee it is not millions of dollars," said a smiling Inglesino. "We were paid a little under $370,000 last year."
"There goes your savings," said dePierro. "Where's the savings?"
Mayor James Barberio stated his displeasure that Nelson's idea was known by the public.
"Before any of these proposals becomes public, I wish councilmen would meet with the administration to discuss it," he said, indicating his nonsupport for the plan. "We have an outstanding attorney who, with his partners, provides excellent representation. He gets no pension, no health benefits and commands a fraction of his commercial rate."
The mayor noted that over the past three years, the town attorney has billed Parsippany $200,000 less than the previous attorney did over a similar period of time.
"My administration has cut legal costs by $200,000," he reiterated.
Then he peppered Nelson with questions regarding costs he said would be incurred with an in-house lawyer, pointing to space ("Where are we going to put him?"), staffing (he'd need secretaries, paralegals with benefits and pensions) and equipment ("We'd have to provide computers, supplies").
"If our outside lawyer messes something up, our lawyer has malpractice insurance," Barberio said, adding that the town's legal needs are far greater than one attorney can handle.
He said municipalities overwhelmingly choose the outside attorney model because it makes better financial sense.
"I get to see the everyday operations, who's suing, and suing frivolously," said the mayor. "If you don't have professionals that handle municipal law, you can get in a lot of trouble. In my opinion, we can't afford to go to an in-house style of attorney."
"Mayor, you bring up some valid points," Nelson said. "I am not suggesting we prevent the town from hiring any attorney, not suggesting putting him in Town Hall, just one paralegal/clerk. Mr. Inglesino's bills are reasonable compared to previous administrations. The numbers I ran for the last two years is about $500,000-$600,000."
Inglesino noted that his firm has billed the town on the average nearer to $500,000 over the past three years.
"I my heart I think this is the right thing to do," said Nelson. "If i think that it would prevent us from hiring quality firms like Mr. Inglesino's I wouldn't suggest this discussion. It would help the town get a grip on budgeting and for the administration and department heads not to worry in the back of their heads about justifying each e-mail or phone call and how much they will get billed.
"I'm just asking a committee to look at it. In the end if it works, great, and if it doesn't, Mr. Inglesino is still our township attorney."