Lawsuit Funds Limited for County Agencies Under "Talk First, Sue Later" Plan Adopted Today

 

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​The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, tired of being sued by other elected officials, voted today to limit payment of legal fees in lawsuits between county departments.

Nine lawsuits filed by county officials against the county, including eight against the Board of Supervisors, have cost taxpayers more than $2 million in legal fees. Now, with the new "Alternative Dispute Resolution" system, officials must first try to mediate any problems.

"Step One is a face-to-face meeting," says Wade Swanson, director of the county's ligitation department.

If mediation doesn't work and the elected official -- take Sheriff Joe Arpaio, for example -- still wants to sue another county agency, the money for the legal fees has to come from the suing agency's own pockets.

With the Board and County Attorney Andrew Thomas apparently prepared to wage another courtroom battle over Thomas' request to hire special prosecutors in the case against Supervisor Don Stapley, the board's move to block payment of legal fees may have wide-reaching consequences.

Barnett Lotstein, one of Thomas' top aides, tells New Times today it's "ironic" for the Supervisors to make this rule when they've rejected offers made months ago by Thomas to mediate disputes. We're not sure who rejected who's old offer of mediation, though -- it's tough to see through the dust in this sandbox.

Click here to see the board's resolution.

 

A statement by the county on the issue follows:

 

Oct. 21, 2009

For Immediate Release

                      County Board adopts 'Talk First, Sue Later" policy for internal disputes

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors today instituted a "talk-first" policy with other county elected officials, in an attempt to halt the spiraling costs of lawsuits between taxpayer-funded agencies.

The board voted unanimously in favor of an "Alternative Dispute Resolution" which requires several steps to mediate a claim, conflict, dispute or controversy between any county officers before initiating any litigation.

In a resolution creating the policy, the board called the current situation "disruptive, time consuming and costly."

"Hopefully this policy will bring discussion and resolution when we have differences with other county elected officials and saving precious taxpayer dollars" commented Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox.  

 Specifically, the dispute policy calls for good-faith meetings between the county officers, then mandatory mediation with a third-party agreed to by both parties. If the conflict cannot be resolved at that level, then the dispute will be submitted to an administrative hearing officer. And if, after exhausting these steps, a county officer chooses to sue another elected county officer, the legal fees and costs of that litigation must come from the lump-sum budget of that office.

The new policy doesn't prohibit an official from taking disputes to court, but it forces county officials to consider the financial impact of that action, county officials said. Currently nine separate lawsuits have been filed between Maricopa County agencies, eight of them against the board of supervisors. The issues range from the construction of a criminal court tower, budget authority, public records requests, IT consolidation and control of correctional health and a criminal justice computer database.  So far, the county has been billed in excess of $2 million for legal costs.

According to the board's legal counsel, the county position has been upheld in all of these disputes. "The county Board of Supervisors has yet to lose a judgment or an appeal," said County Manager David Smith. 

"At a time of a prolonged economic downturn, it is unfortunate that the county has been forced into these expenditures,"   Smith said. "This is a sensible, prudent policy to control what has become an unfortunate waste of precious resources."

"While the current wave of lawsuits between the board and certain elected county officials is unprecedented in 97 years, taxpayers deserve some protection," commented Richard de Uriarte, a county spokesman. "That is the thinking of the board on this.  We don't always agree with County Attorney Andrew Thomas, but even he had proposed mediation. The board is setting that policy formally today."

In a resolution creating the policy, the board called the current situation "disruptive, time consuming and costly."  

Board members and county administrative staff have discussed the new policy with several countywide constitutional officers.  

 

 

 

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