Pa. public officials rely on solicitors for legal advice

September 27, 2008|By DON AINES and JENNIFER FITCH

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- At nearly every public meeting of a municipal government or appointed body, in addition to elected officials and staff, a solicitor is on hand to give legal advice as needed, an increasingly necessary cog in the machinery of governance.

"Solicitors are an important part of the municipal function because much of what a municipality does is based on enabling legislation. Therefore, we need proper interpretation of the legislation," said Lloyd Hamberger, borough manager in Waynesboro, Pa.

Hamberger held up two 3-inch binders. The blue one held two union contracts he helped to review. The second was a white binder with 170 pages of borough code.

For general solicitor services, Waynesboro paid $17,738 last year and another $14,919 in solicitor fees for the Planning and Zoning Commission paid at an hourly rate to the law firm Salzmann and Hughes, according to borough figures.


"Chambersburg is a community with a population of probably less than 20,000, but it's operation is large ... about $70 million," Chambersburg Borough Manager Eric Oyer said. "It's not only large. It's complex ... The size and complexity of the world in which we live requires continuing good legal advice."

"Our solicitors are not employees," Oyer said. "They are private attorneys with expertise in municipal law."

In 2007, Chambersburg paid its solicitor, Thomas Finucane, $48,182 and Assistant Solicitor Welton Fischer $51,876, according to borough figures. This year, the contract with Salzmann Hughes is for $140 per hour for legal services, a figure that Oyer said is reasonable for legal services.

In addition to being the largest borough in Franklin County, Oyer noted it also is the only one in the state operating four utilities, each of which has its own regulatory structures.

Unlike municipalities, Franklin County has attorneys on staff, including solicitor Shawn Meyers and assistant solicitors Mary Beth Shank, who handles contract reviews, and Hannah Herman-Snyder, who represents the human service agencies and county nursing home.

Myers was paid $43,490 in 2007, Shank $22,660 and Herman-Snyder $24,205, and all are considered salaried employees, Deputy Chief Clerk Jean Byers said. The county also employs Brian Bornman as the attorney for Children and Youth Services at $58,285 in 2007, and Jennifer S. Newman as the solicitor for Domestic Relations at a salary of $46,019 last year, Byers said.

Every row office also has a contract attorney with payment ranging from a maximum of $900 for the coroner's office to more than $13,000 in 2007 for the solicitor for the Sheriff's Office, Byers said.

"We're not the attorneys for the individual members of any board. We're the attorneys for that particular entity," Meyers said. The duties of a solicitor, and the hours devoted to the job, can vary widely, Meyers said.

Those duties include providing legal advice to the county Election Board, advice on litigation or potential litigation, tax appeals, emergency guardianships and addressing the legal affairs of incapacitated people, Meyers said.

School boards also rely on solicitors and outside legal services, more in some years than in others, said Rick Vensel, business manager for the Chambersburg Area School District. Attorneys from the Black and Davison law firm are paid at rates of up to $120 per hour, he said.

During the course of a year, however, a district might have to hire attorneys with expertise in other areas, such as union contract negotiations, Vensel said.

The Waynesboro Area School Board typically pays solicitor James D. Flower Jr. an annual retainer of $18,500 per year, but that figure was $21,536 for the 2007-08 school year due to extra services, according to district figures. The Tuscarora School District paid the York, Pa., law firm Stock & Leader $17,284 for legal services last year.

In 2007, Washington Township paid $30,342 for township legal fees and another $4,159 for the planning commissioner, Township Manager Mike Christopher said. Developers and others paid the township back more than $5,000 of those fees.

The total paid by the township to solicitor John Lisko was $32,684, Christopher said. Lisko said he also serves as the solicitor for Antrim, St. Thomas, Quincy and Fannett townships.

Many attorneys represent more than one government entity, Meyers said, noting that he also serves as solicitor for the Chambersburg Zoning Hearing Board, Montgomery Township and the Bear Valley Joint Authority.

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