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Proposal advances to add legal counsel for Baltimore City Council

What started as a contentious municipal divorce in June advanced on mostly polite terms on Tuesday, as a Baltimore City Council committee voted unanimously to send to the full council a bill that would give the legislative body its own legal counsel.

The City Council is scheduled for a Monday vote on the bill, an amendment to the city charter. Should the full council approve it and should Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sign it, the proposal still would have to be approved by voters next year.

The general counsel would be a full-time position serving at the pleasure of the City Council, providing “independent legal advice” to the legislative body and representing the City Council “in a judicial or other proceeding” if the council is a party or wants to intervene, according to the proposal. The bill would not give the general counsel the power to file litigation.

The council’s Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee on Tuesday approved amendments proposed by President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, the bill’s lead sponsor.

City Solicitor George A. Nilson, who answered committee members’ legal questions about the bill, said after the hearing he remains opposed to creating a general counsel position.

“I didn’t think it was a good idea,” he said, “and I didn’t think it was necessary.”

A counsel for the City Council could help ease the burden on the city’s Law Department, Nilson said, but the lack of coordinated, consistent advice within city government could create more work.

“Suddenly, there is another lawyer bouncing around the City Council, opining on things,” he said.

Young introduced the general counsel bill in June after the City Council passed a mandatory-local-hiring law that Nilson deemed unconstitutional. The law does not go into effect until December, and its constitutionality has not been tested in court.

After that meeting in June, Young and Nilson seemed ready to do battle, with Young saying the city solicitor worked for the mayor, not the council, while Nilson insisted such a conflict didn’t exist.

The city solicitor is appointed by the mayor; the Law Department represents and advises the city government. Young has said he has wanted an independent attorney even before the battle over the local-hiring law.

Tuesday’s hour-long hearing was a civil one. Nilson told committee members the language in Young’s amendments “looked fine.” Young, for his part, praised Nilson’s office.

“I’ve had my differences with the Law Department, but I believe we have some of the finest lawyers in the Law Department,” he said. “If we could steal one to be [general counsel], I’d be OK with that.”

Much of the discussion at the hearing focused on the position’s salary and scope of the job and whether either would make the position difficult to fill. The proposal calls for the compensation to be “at least equal to” that of the chief of the Law Department’s General Counsel Division, which is approximately $100,000.

Nilson suggested adding the word “reasonable” to the salary clause to show it could be more. The Board of Estimates, the city spending panel on which Nilson sits, would approve the final salary.

Young said the general counsel would be subject to the same rules as the City Council when it came to raises. But committee Chairman James B. Kraft expressed concern that no candidate would take the job without a guaranteed contract.

“I don’t think you’re going to get someone to go into that system,” he said.

“I beg to differ on that,” Young said.

“If you’re asking someone to take an at-will job, they’ll want to be flexible,” Nilson added.

“You are at-will,” Young said to Nilson. “It’s no different.”

Kraft, a lawyer, said the general counsel could be responsible for as many areas of law as the Law Department but work as a solo practitioner, so the salary should reflect that.

“There’s a difference when you can turn to your lawyer in your firm,” said Kraft, who has worked in both his own firm and a small firm. “It’s not a 40-hour-a-week job.”