The Morro Bay City Council Tuesday approved hiring an outside lawyer to help resolve personnel problems with City Manager Andrea Lueker and City Attorney Rob Schultz.
Mayor Jamie Irons and council members Noah Smukler and Christine Johnson voted to approve hiring the lawyer, citing the need to get a divisive personnel matter settled quickly. Councilman George Leage voted against it and Councilwoman Nancy Johnson was absent.
The contract for the outside lawyer is for 50 hours at $250 an hour for a maximum of $12,500. Irons said he has three firms in mind for the job that are familiar with municipal law and personnel matters. The $12,500 will come from the city’s risk management reserve, which Irons said has some excess funds. A decision about which firm to hire could be made as early as next week.
Irons requested the outside help after a highly contentious meeting Sept. 12 in which the council met in closed session to decide whether to fire Lueker and Schultz. The council heard hours of impassioned public testimony on the matter, most of it against firing the pair, and ultimately took no action. Citing personnel confidentiality, Irons has given no reason for wanting Lueker and Schultz fired.
The mayor said an independent attorney is needed because Schultz could not represent the city in a matter in which he is the subject of the personnel action. He said that hiring an outside attorney is a way to settle the matter and finally make the reasons behind the controversy public.
“Obtaining legal counsel is the pay to why,” Irons said.
The matter was on the meeting’s consent agenda, meaning that it would not be discussed unless the council decided to do so. However, Leage and multiple members of the public asked that it be pulled from consent for discussion and a separate vote.
A crowd of about 200 people attended the meeting. Irons had to warn people about excessive cheering and other disruptions, but the meeting was not as emotionally charged as the one on Sept. 12. This was followed by two and half hours of public comment. The public comment was evenly divided between those supporting Irons and the hiring of an outside lawyer and those opposed to it as a waste of money.
Those in favor of hiring the attorney said it is the only way to cut through the rancor within the city over the issue.
“The council needs help, help from an outside source,” said Morro Bay resident Jane Heath.
Those opposing the move said the $12,500 could be better spent on other needs such as filling potholes and buying police equipment. Former Mayor Bill Yates said that previous councils have fired their attorneys and managers without having to hire an outside lawyer.