County swaps legal firm for panel

The county will use three firms from a special panel to handle its general litigation work in the future.

The panel will replace Hall Hieatt and Connelly of San Luis Obispo, which had been the county’s primary contract general litigation firm. That relationship became complicated after it became widely known that partner Clay Hall and his wife bought an Arroyo Grande home with then-Assistant County Administrative Officer Gail Wilcox.

The purchase created what some believed was an appearance of a conflict of interest and led county leaders in part to consider a panel of attorneys — which is used in other parts of the state. Such a panel is different than the no-bid relationship that Hall’s firm had with the county.

But even as county officials made the decision to go to a panel in September, they also praised Hall Hieatt’s history of defending the county in civil cases.

Replacing Hall Hieatt are Coates and Coates of San Luis Obispo; the firm of Porter, Scott of Sacramento; and attorney Doug Smith of Riverside.

County Counsel Warren Jensen said Smith is leaving a firm in Riverside on amicable terms and taking six associates with him. Smith, who has a daughter attending Cal Poly, has agreed to work for the county without charging for travel, Jensen said.

A little background

The change follows a period of turmoil for the county and Wilcox.

The Board of Supervisors fired Wilcox with cause this summer because of her affair with Sgt. Tony Perry, who had been negotiating with the county on behalf of the county Deputy Sheriffs Association.

Wilcox had been negotiating with the union near the time of the affair, but the exact timing has not been determined. Perry is no longer negotiating with the county.

Wilcox is suing the county and former County Administrative Officer David Edge for allegedly creating a sexually hostile workplace. The Board of Supervisors fired Edge without cause in May.

From 2005 to August, Hall Hieatt made $1.9 million from the county contract, Human Resources Director Tami Douglas-Schatz said.

While the County Counsel’s Office handles many things for the county, it does not usually tie up its attorneys in litigation. Eighteen firms applied to be on the various panels the county is setting up. In addition to the “general litigation” panel, there are specialized panels to handle workers’ compensation, labor and employment, eminent domain and other issues.

Hall Hieatt was among the 18 that applied to be on the general litigation panel. Jensen said that he would not discuss the reasons why Hall’s firm or any other firm was not chosen.

“I can tell you the criteria we used for selection, but I am not discussing why we didn’t select someone,” Jensen said.

Jensen said the firms were chosen for their responsiveness to questions posed by the county, strength of their credentials, related legal experience, cost considerations such as hourly and travel rates, and the existence of real or potential conflicts.

Jensen said Hall Hieatt is not handling any case for the county at this time and was cooperative in turning over files of outstanding cases.

The county also has two firms it will use for conflict issues. As one example, Jensen said, it is legally required to defend David Edge in the case where Wilcox is suing Edge and the county. It is paying Martin Moroski to defend Edge, Jensen said.

The other firm that will be used when conflicts arise is Andre, Morris & Buttery of San Luis Obispo.