The Maricopa County Board Supervisors today sealed the deal on their transfer of power over civil litigation matters out of the office of County Attorney Andrew Thomas (pictured).
With a vote in their informal meeting this morning, the supervisors created a new department to handle civil lawsuits and funded it with $528,000 taken from Thomas' office. The meeting agenda claims the move will cause litigation costs to "decline over time."
Here's the agenda item in full bureaucratese:
Management and Budget 3. CREATION OF GENERAL LITIGATION DEPARTMENT
Approve the creation of a new department entitled General Litigation (Department 330). Approve the transfer of expenditure appropriation authority in the amount of $527,530 from County Attorney-Civil Department (280) General Fund (100) Operating (0000) and the transfer of $194,341 from Non-Departmental (470) General Fund (100) Consultants (4724) Operating (0000) to the General Litigation Department (Department 330, Fund 100).
On December 23, 2008 the Board of Supervisors withdrew its delegation of litigation services from the County Attorney. This action reallocates funding for outside legal services from the existing County Attorney - Civil budget in keeping with the December, 2008 action. This action also allocates funds from Non-Departmental Consultants to allow for the creation of positions to support litigation services, and necessary general supplies. Overall costs of litigation are expected to decline over time. (C-49-09-051-M-00).
On Friday, Thomas told the East Valley Tribune that the move was a power play related to his prosecution of County Supervisor Don Stapley.
New Times hears Thomas will file yet a cease-and-desist motion in court to block the taking of funds, now that the supervisors have voted. Michael Scerbo, spokesman for Thomas, said he was not yet aware of the vote when called by New Times.
The supervisors believe Thomas' prosecution of Stapley is a conflict of interest and have hired private attorneys Tom Irvine and former Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley to deal with their squabble with Thomas and oversee the handling of civil litigation.
Without any money for civil lawsuits, it seems Thomas won't be able to hire lawyers to shield him from civil suits directly related to his prosecution of Stapley. A paradox, to be sure -- and one more reason that allegations of conflicts of interest seem to ring true when it comes to county officials investigating each other.
UPDATE 1:20 pm: Here's the news release just put out by the county about this:
Maricopa County supervisors form general litigation department
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors today created a new general litigation department reporting to the County Manager.
The appointment was taken as a follow up to action taken last December when the supervisors withdrew its delegation of its litigation from the County Attorney due to their concerns over County Attorney Andrew Thomas's potential conflicts of interest in handling litigation involving the Board and the spiraling costs. Since 2004, the cost of civil representation under Thomas has increased from $12 million to $22 million.
"There are several important reasons to take this reluctant but important step," commented Chairman Max Wilson. "But in these difficult economic times, we must be careful to control costs while receiving top-notch legal representation."
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In creating the new department, the board also reallocated some $527,530 from the portion of the county attorney's budget used to pay for outside counsel and $194,341 from other parts of the county budget. The reallocation will not result in any staff reductions at the county attorney's office since it comes out of the fund for outside counsel.
"When it comes to litigation, the county pays for everything," County Manager David Smith told the board." We pay if we lose. We pay if we win. Therefore, the county must look creatively when it comes to saving on litigation costs. We're not adding a new department or adding new dollars to the budget."
The board members hope the transfer of authority and budget control back to the county manager will result in declining litigation expenses over time. The new department will gear up to handle more litigation directly and reversing recent trends that have relied more on outside counsel to handle litigation cases.