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City reverses decision to stop paying law firm


The Reno City Council is rehiring an outside law firm to handle its costly labor negotiations and lawsuits. The decision reverses a previous vote to stop paying the firm.

It may sound like just a dispute over legal protocol, but it's also at the center of the city's increasingly precarious situation with its collective bargaining groups. Reno is currently in negotiations with seven of its labor groups; factor in a district judge's ruling that prevented the city from laying off dozens of firefighters, and that's a lot of legal fees. Las Vegas-based law firm Fisher and Phillips was handling some of these proceedings and representing the city in its case against the firefighters union, which could go all the way to the state Supreme Court. But last month, two council members, Oscar Delgado and Hillary Schieve, voted against extending the city's contract with the firm by another $300,000.

Council Member Neoma Jardon calls that decision shortsighted. She says the city could be in the red in only a few years if it doesn't reign in spending on public unions.

"There are hundreds and hundreds of millions at stake and to not be represented with the experts is doing a disservice to the taxpayers of the city," Jardon says.

Other council members echoed that sentiment, and that's why the matter was brought back again. Except this time, the vote was done under state and city law that reroutes this spending through the City Attorney's office and doesn't require a supermajority. That allowed council members to pass the measure, despite opposition from council members like Schieve. She points to an outstanding bill from the law firm that the city didn't know about until recently. It was $175,000 over their contract.

"Why did we even vote on the last time it came up if we were just going to find a loophole? And I think that's why people dislike government because you didn't like the answer that you got, so you come back with this," Schieve says.

Schieve and Delgado, who are supported by the public unions, believe they can sit down with the groups and hash this out, instead of spending more on legal. Dwight Dortch says that's impossible because the unions will not back down. In fact, he believes they're trying to draw out the process.

"It's going to continue to get worse and, yeah, they want to sit down with you and talk because I think they truly want to delay this until after November," Dortch says. "I think they're looking to see who gets elected to this council and going to do whatever these public employees unions want."

The City Attorney's office has said it's too understaffed to handle the complexities of these negotiations, but any future contract will be capped so that the firm can't overspend and then saddle the city with unexpected bills. Any work done by the firm over the $300,000 will be pro bono. Interestingly, council member Jenny Brekhus, who initially supported keeping the law firm, opposed this workaround for another reason: it violates the city charter, she says, and may not pass legal muster.

"I will not support this because it's going against charter and it's pulling out of air a statute that is not applicable. And I think the city attorneys are erring in their legal reading of this or their responsibility to represent their client with truthful and factful information," Brekhus says.

Despite these concerns, the motion passed 3 to 4. The city still needs to work out how it will pay the outstanding debt to the firm, though; Delgado and Scheive were able to block payment of that. The City Attorney's office plans to sit down with the firm and work out some compromise. Eventually, the city will hire in-house counsel to deal with labor, but that won't be until next year. Meanwhile, Reno plans to appeal the injunction that prevented it from firing more than 30 firefighters.

Will Stone is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.