Additional Articles by Wally Hicks
Why having a good legal counsel is critical to the success of Josephine County
Grants Pass, OR. —Josephine County, like most medium and large sized cities and counties in Oregon, employs a Legal Counsel. The Legal Counsel is the attorney for the county. On one hand, the job is highly specialized in that very few members of the bar have the training or experience to do this kind of work. On the other hand, legal counsels have been called the ultimate general practitioners because they must know, or be able to quickly learn, something about nearly every area of the law.
The mission of the Josephine County Legal Counsel is to provide representation and legal guidance to the County regarding matters that pertain to the community as a whole. The general goals of the office include:
1. Protect the county from liability.
2. Effectively and efficiently handle routine legal matters (public contracts, leases, lawsuits, questions, research, etc) for Josephine County.
3. Provide as many viable legal options to decision-makers as possible. The Legal Counsel does not decide policy, but rather facilitates the goals of policy makers and the electorate as a whole.
4. Provide guidance that conforms at all times to the letter and spirit of the law.
5. Appropriately prioritize the work to satisfy realistic deadlines.
6. Be available, approachable, and accurate. We do not promise to achieve perfection, but we pledge to pursue it.
7. Administer an effective law library for the benefit of the citizens and the local legal community.
My staff and I work very hard to achieve these goals. Besides myself, my office includes one other practicing attorney, a Legal Administrator who does paralegal work, a half-time Legal Secretary and the part-time availability of the County Law Librarian. Our typical duties and responsibilities include:
• Prepare pleadings, briefs, motions and other court documents.
• Provide verbal or written legal opinions upon appropriate request.
• Give legal advice, analysis and recommendations.
• Perform complex legal research as necessary.
• Interpret proposed and current legislation and administrative rules.
• Prepare, review, and analyze proposed and current leases and public contracts.
• Represent the county in selected trial and appellate courts and before administrative bodies.
• Prepare and review drafts of proposed ordinances, referrals, orders, resolutions and amendments.
• Advise on questions regarding the county’s legal liabilities.
• Attend meetings of various groups when appropriate or as requested.
• Prepare ballot titles for county measures before elections.
• Coordinate responsibilities and duties of Josephine County regarding service districts and special district formation and annexation.
• Communicate with attorneys representing other parties who are dealing with the county.
• Provide other related functions as an attorney regarding matters that pertain to the community as a whole.
One of our current projects involves publishing, and subsequently reviewing, a codebook of County ordinances. For decades the county ordinances have been almost inaccessible to public research because they are not systematically codified. In the summer of 2014, Legal Counsel reopened the codification project to produce an easily accessible and searchable code of county ordinances. The project is well underway and the finished product is scheduled to be available online later this year.
Additionally, the Legal Counsel is now successfully working with the County Planning Department and the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals to provide searchable, electronic files of planning cases that have been appealed. Though this requires extra staff effort, the practice has been well received by the parties and court. It also potentially saves paper.
The office of Legal Counsel is, and should be, the primary source of information on legal issues for the County government. My office provides support to the commissioners and all the governmental departments, ranging from simple requests for information to detailed legal opinions on a wide variety of topics. Legal Counsel provides information directly to the public on occasion, but typically the office connects with the public indirectly.
If a citizen or group raises a legal question with the commissioners or a County department, the question will probably be passed to Legal Counsel. The answer will then be relayed back to the citizen or group. In this way the Legal Counsel serves the public through the County government.
Good government requires informed input from citizens and informed decisions by government officials. Consequently, the Legal Counsel frequently provides advice regarding public meetings and public records. The Legal Counsel staff devotes a substantial amount of time and effort to satisfying public records requests and ensuring that the County government adheres to the letter and the spirit of the applicable laws. The Legal Counsel does not take positions on questions of public policy, but rather provides an impartial legal vetting of the options available to policy makers or the electorate as a whole. On occasion the Legal Counsel fields questions from the press or the public to clarify the background of certain issues.
Clearly, the elected Legal Counsel is an extremely important position for Josephine County. It is my enormous honor and privilege to serve our community in this role. Thank you for your support.
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