Town approves recommendation to add in-house Legal Counsel

The Town of Saugeen Shores is a $45million business and touches several areas such as, it is a regulatory agency, it is the largest landowner in the municipality, it provides several services directly to residents and has hundreds of agreements with property owners, organizations and individuals that have to be administered.

“It is a big business,” says Mayor Luke Charbonneau, “and big businesses that touch the broad array of things that we that we do start to encounter a lot of legal action.  The municipality is growing very quickly requiring more agreements. As there is so much activity, you end up engaging a lawyer a lot and we do on a routine and consistent basis.  Financially it makes sense and also doing those things better.  In-house counsel will enable us to do that work more efficiently and in the best interest of the people.”

The remarks were made in reference to a recommendation brought forward by the CAO, Kara Van Myall, to “approve the creation of a Municipal Solicitor position” in-house.

There has been a considerable escalation in legal fees over the past five to six years as shown in the table below.

In the report, Van Myall says that the Town has experienced an escalation of legal fees, $252,804 in 2021 and $282,398 in 2022 respectively, and the second quarter of 2023 indicates the Town is tracking to be at approximately $240,000. Additionally, since the second quarter, the Town has also engaged in a defense at the Ontario Land Tribunal which will see additional legal costs of between $60,000 to $75,000.

“Legal fees for 2023 are therefore tracking to be around $300,000 – $315,000,” says Van Myall in her report.

Van Myall also pointed out that legal counsel, Tammy Grove, who handled a large portfolio of Saugeen Shores files, has resigned from the Ross Firm, the Town’s outside legal counsel.

She added that, “While the position decision’s strongest rationale is related to escalating costs, the change at the Ross Firms necessitates the timing for this discussion with Council. It may be advantageous for Saugeen Shores to consider the timing for the creation of this position and the transition of our files.”

While the anticipated cost for a Municipal Solicitor is $215,000, the CAO explained that it would eventually result in cost savings overall of approximately $191,000 annually and that there may be the possibility of “… reaching out to neighbouring smaller municipalities that could participate in a fee-for-service arrangement that could revenue generate for this service.”

Although cost is a factor, Van Myall also explained that an in-house solicitor would enable standardization of items such as lease agreements, memorandums of understanding, physician agreements and legal land reviews (surveys, lot line review, encroachments, etc.) which, according to the CAO, currently “suffer from a lack of coordination”.

Councillor Cheryl Grace agreed saying that, as chair of a committee, a letter had to be sent out by the committee but it first had to be looked over by a legal advisor and therefore had to be sent to an outside firm.  “If we had someone in-house who could do that, it wold be much more efficient.”

“I agree with Councillor Grace,” said Councillor Dave Myette.  “Our municipality has grown to the point where this makes sense.  Having been involved with other organizations that grow to a point where their legal fees outweigh the point of having a firm do it for you and it makes sense to have it in-house.”  He questioned whether the job would give the candidate enough to do or whether she would require an assistant in the future.

Deputy Mayor Diane Huber asked if there was a publicly available policy related to additional management compensation.  The CAO answered saying that it was not publicaly available but was open to staff.

Huber also enquired why the job description was so specific when it set out “eight years of experience” was required and the CAO explained experience was a standard set out for different position levels.

The Deputy Mayor then questioned why the Ross Firm letter regarding Grove’s resignation had been sent to a specific staff (CAO) rather than addressed to the Town.  She also wanted it noted that the Ross Firm letter was, in fact, sent to the Town as it appeared to be a personal letter.  “This is a significant staff position we are creating and is at a level of importance that, to me, seems we (Council) should take a much greater role and interest in.  Also, I am not sure why we can’t have more than one staff report directly to Council.  I took a quick glance at the Municipal Act and the CAO said that there was a Provincial standard to have only one staff reporting directly to Council but I’ll reserve my interest in the issue for a future meeting and I will also further my interest in having more than one staff person reporting directly to us (Council).  I also support the recommendation.”

Councillor Rachel Stack, a legal counsel, agreed that an in-house legal position was “… a great idea” along with the role of Strategic Advisor. There will likely be further legal costs in the future and having that ability and previous legal experience could really benefit the town in the long run, particularly, if we have tribunal cases or litigation matters.  From my perspective, I think it’s appropriate to have that and not report to council but as a function of the town.”

Councillor Bud Halpin pointed out that there was a spike in legal costs over two years and that average for legal costs has been approximately $143,000.  “Now we are considering hiring at $215,000.  If we are just going through a spike right now and then drop off to the figures that we were spending, then we’ll be paying more as we now will have a person on staff.”

The CAO again pointed out that the value created in the organization is around the front-end items that staff now works on.  “There will be cost savings in time and effort that goes into a number of things, in addition to standardization and in-house services, and as we grow and see the litigation being brought against us.”

According to the report, Market Review places the position at Pay Grade 15 on the 2023 Non-Union salary grid – Job Rate $155,129 + 30% (benefits) or a total of approximately $201,700. Human Resources has drafted a Job Description (attached). Additional overhead like professional membership and licenses are anticipated to be approximately $10,000. The impact is estimated at $215,000 annually. Roughly $30,000 of the $215,000 will be allocated to the Building Division and funded through Building Permit revenue.

Recommendation was carried.