New city attorney imminentCouncil to enter negotiations with Kevin Olson
Despite a city code requiring appointed officials to live within one mile of Washington, the city council approved entering negotiations with Coralville-based attorney Kevin Olson to become the new Washington City Attorney. Mayor Sandra Johnson and council member Merle Hagie will negotiate the contract.
During a special session Wednesday evening, city administrator Brent Hinson told the city council that he had found the residency requirement in city codes. Council members indicated they did not know the requirement was still on the books. Initially Hinson had said that the requirement wouldn’t apply to the city attorney, as the position is a contracted one with the attorney working as an independent contractor. City attorney Craig Arbuckle disagreed, saying the code indicates the code applies to all appointed officials. After the council approved negotiations with Olson, Arbuckle said that the city could only negotiate with Olson and not make an offer until the code is amended.
“All they can do is discuss with this person terms, but they cannot make an appointment the way the code presently reads, with the residency requirements,” Arbuckle said. “That is why it was important tonight to start action about that residency requirement and give the public opportunity to give input before they bring anyone in who isn’t a Washington resident.”
Hinson said changing the code would be on the agenda during the city council’s Sept. 18 regular meeting. The code will require a public hearing and three readings to amend.
Council members Bob Shepherd and Hagie were on the city attorney selection task force. After the meeting they said the reason the group opted to choose three attorney finalists from out of the area is that Washington attorneys who had applied had shown conflict of interest, as well as having an attorney who would be immediately ready to do city business. They declined comment when asked about Arbuckle, the 33-year veteran city attorney, whom Hinson said during an earlier interview had applied for the position.
“With any of the firms chosen, there would be almost zero chance of a conflict,” Hagie said.
Olson is the city attorney for Coralville and has been licensed to practice law since 1999. During discussion, council members said that Coralville officials had all spoken highly of him.
During the meeting, Hinson began telling the council the staff’s choice for city attorney. Shepherd stopped him, saying that at a special meeting to interview the three finalists held Sept. 6, he had asked for a list of attributes the staff wanted to see in a city attorney, not for them to choose a specific attorney.
Council member Bob Shellmyer again objected to the use of the task force, saying that the city attorney works for the city council and that the council did not get to see the other candidates.
“We’re at the tail end trying to figure out what is going on,” he said. ‘That is absolutely a mistake. Let’s back up and say that we as a council need to decide what we want for an attorney.”
The council had appointed a task force to narrow down candidates. There were originally 15 candidates and the city council interviewed the top three.
A poll of the council members indicated most wanted Olson. Hagie was the only one who suggested hiring a different firm. He also was the only council member to vote against opening negotiations with Olson. Council member Fred Stark made the motion to open negotiations, saying he was hoping to move the process along.
“There were some things I think were not done in the most correct way,” Stark said. “Let’s proceed and see what happens.”
After the vote, the council determined that the mayor and one council member should do the negotiations with Olson. Hagie was chosen after Shepherd and Shellmyer both withdrew from consideration. Johnson said that she would try to set up an appointment early next week.