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Law Dept. Idea Undergoes Council Scrutiny

Pros and cons of controversial suggestion to create in-house town attorney discussed

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."

Robert Lawrence February 06, 2013 at 11:25 AM
"'In my heart I think this is the right thing to do,' said Nelson" So Parsippany should be governed by whatever happens to warm Jonathan Nelson's HEART? Not facts. Not intelligence. Not correct policy. Not the interests of taxpayers. But whatever happens to warm Jonathan Nelson's heart. Isn't that just wonderful. Should we all join hands and sing Kumbaya, Mr. Nelson?
Carol M. February 06, 2013 at 12:38 PM
I don't understand the problem with exploring the option. Talk to the other townships to see how they handle the concerns raised. Get the numbers, get the facts and make a decision. If our town council members are asking questions then there is still work that needs to be done. Get the answers first, then decide. It troubles me that anyone would make up their minds on how they feel about any issue, either way, before they have all the information needed. Its better to say I've looked into all the facts and here's why this will or will not work rather then to say I feel this won't work so why bother to even look into it
David Comora February 06, 2013 at 01:08 PM
Jonathan, thanks for bringing this issue up, please keep pursuing it as it certainly deserves a committee's review. Over three years we've paid out $1,500,000 in legal fees, which is $200,000 less than the previous administration. It still seems like your plan could provide some dramatic additional savings and offer more legal coverage than we are currently being provided.
Robyn M. February 06, 2013 at 01:10 PM
Why would our town go into a discussion about internal versus external attorneys, without first being prepared. This is what turns every meeting into Parsippany into a circus. Why ask the attorney how much WE billed him. Look at the bills. Write the last five years' billings on a single sheet of paper, along with information such as how many lawsuits were handled, how many hours, etc. Easy. This is how normal, efficient people operate.
Scott Dean February 06, 2013 at 01:17 PM
Think of the money that could be saved in black sharpies, Isn't REDACTION 9/10ths of the law.
David Comora February 06, 2013 at 01:17 PM
Robyn, I believe this is exactly why Mr. Nelson is asking to form a committee. This article states that he's done some research with other similar sized towns. The next step is to form a committee to determine if its viable. It never hurts to have an educated electorate as well.
Robyn M. February 06, 2013 at 01:24 PM
David - I understand what you're saying. My point is that we have a paid full-time mayor, plus paid administrative staff. There is really never an excuse for going into a meeting unprepared. Working in the private sector and running many meetings, it was a basic and standard procedure to go into Powerpoint and create a "one-sheeter" or "cheat sheet" on whatever the meeting topic was. I guess creating a committee is a good idea, however, this is about a one hour job (mostly calling other departments) and about 5 minutes of typing for a clerical person, directed by a paid Township employee.
gary martin February 06, 2013 at 02:27 PM
MR. DIPIERRO IS 100 % CORRECT IN HIS STATEMENTS. HERE IS A MAN, THAT HAS OVER 30 YEARS OF HISTORY IN HIS BACK POCKET. HE ALSO THINKS OF THE PEOPLE, NOT HIMSELF. MR. DIPIERRO THANK YOU FOR YOU SERVICE AND I HOPE TO SEE YOU SATURDAY.
Mike P February 06, 2013 at 07:11 PM
I don't understand the mayor's statement. Aren't public council meetings the forum and legal way to open up a discussion? It's a violation of all open public meeting laws to discuss things with the council behind the scenes.
Carl B February 06, 2013 at 08:03 PM
Very worthwhile to investigate. Calc the numbers. The billing hours are well over a full-time attorney at a rate of around $200/hr. Mr. Nelson may right. The council members who are no votes for this appear to have tunnel vision.
diane holder February 06, 2013 at 08:28 PM
What I find so interesting and disappointing Mayor Barberio is why are you attacking Johnathan Nelson for attempting to come up with a plan to save the Taxpayers money. The town has averaged over $500,000 a year just paying Big Johnny Inglesino!! However, the Mayor as usual tells half truths failing to mention nothing about the other legal work that Big Johnny has to assign to other law firms due to a conflict of interests. And Mayor you obviously read your response to Johnathan from a planned script more than likely written out by Big Johnny!! You also failed to mention why couldn't Inglesino take a hourly fee reduction? If the Governors agenda is to safe the taxpayers money why can't we start here in Parsippany by capping the Attorney fees and just remember there are many great law firms in NJ that would love to do work for this town. Or is it because Big Johnny is fueling your campaign with money? Mayor what we all need to know is what did Big Johnny do this year to cost the taxpayers 500,000? Or is because you call him on the hour to get advice!! This is why you need a parallegal on hand to answer legal question at a minimal fee. As usual once your questioned about you leadership you go on the attack like the Field of Dreams!! I have many reservations about your prior job experience and education!!
Nicholas Robert Homyak February 06, 2013 at 08:33 PM
The alleged 300 thousand dollars fine was described by the Councilman DePierrot as being for an "incinerator" not burning up to standards; not sewers. Usually Government Agencies like the DEP, especially when dealing with other inter-governmental agencies like Townships try and be correct in nature and not punitive. Without knowing the exact nature of the violations and their on-going circumstance it would be hard to explain exactly why the fine was so much..
Carol M. February 06, 2013 at 08:36 PM
Mr Martin you are already difficult enough to follow along with so, for the good of the American people could you please try to post in coherent, full sentence format, without using all caps (which indicates that you are yelling at us). Thank you and go Navy or, is it Army? Well no matter, you can tell us on Saturday when you are hanging with Mr D.
Scott Dean February 06, 2013 at 11:18 PM
There seems to be two sets of numbers out there as to how much this present law firm billed last year can anyone confirm the amount ?
Jeff February 07, 2013 at 01:16 AM
Give me a break -- this is definitely the forum to bring up new ideas. The old ones sure didn't work well (over-priced canned town website, fraudulent town informercial, constant lawsuits). The guy wanted to set up a committee to look it over and vet the idea. What is your idea Robert -- STATUS QUO....
Jeff February 07, 2013 at 01:16 AM
Give me a break -- this is definitely the forum to bring up new ideas. The old ones sure didn't work well (over-priced canned town website, fraudulent town informercial, constant lawsuits). The guy wanted to set up a committee to look it over and vet the idea. What is your idea Robert -- STATUS QUO....
Jeff February 07, 2013 at 01:20 AM
Well the paid full-time mayor plus staff -- has resulted in lawsuits and ridiculous items being brought before the council. I see no issue with transparency and looking into new ideas. This is the forum for the town and council for these topics. Setting up a committee is normal process in government.
Jeff February 07, 2013 at 01:23 AM
Mr. Martin -- I agree with you that Mr. Dipierro brought up good points. Still it is worth looking into further. If the committee finds no savings -- then don't pursue it. As a side note -- your comments are easier to read if you don't put everything with the CAPS LOCK on. It appears that you are yelling -- which I don't believe is the case.
Jonathan Berkowitz February 07, 2013 at 04:40 AM
Who will support Barberio's election campaign without the high paid lawyers?
Citizen Jane February 07, 2013 at 05:20 PM
Does it bother anyone else that our councilman is justifying hiring outside lawyers because they have connections to people in governmental offices?? I'd prefer to think that a good lawyer could resolve any fines without having undue influence used!

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