Attorney opening gives Modesto council a good opportunity

September 19, 2013 

In the last 20 years, Modesto has had only two permanent city attorneys and twice that many city managers. It says something about both jobs.

The city manager has public visibility and day-to-day power. The attorney is – or should be – the quietest person on the council dais, but his or her legal skills are critical in keeping the council and the city out of legal and financial trouble. The city attorney guides the council in writing ordinances that stand up to legal challenge and in doing so saves the city money. Likewise, he or she defends the city against lawsuits and identifies the patterns and situations that contribute to lawsuits.

With Susana Alcala Wood submitting her resignation, effective in November, the City Council has an opportunity to fill a key post.

Wood had what we would consider a mixed record during her seven years in the position. Especially in the early years, there were signs that the council did not have full confidence in counsel. She was the subject of closed-door personnel review sessions in 2007 and 2008.

The Bee – and others – criticized her for confusing language of a 2007 ballot measure and the proposed mobile home rent-control ordinance. Her poor communication contributed to the city being sued in 2008 by a Christian man who wanted to exercise his free-speech rights by preaching in Tenth Street Plaza. That case could and should have been resolved without a lawsuit.

In more recent years, Wood’s performance seemed to level out. She apparently had the support of the council even through an episode last spring where she was faulted for violating a city policy in her handling of a request to change an employee’s timecard hours. That case appeared to be more about time management – not reading emails carefully – than any kind of intent toward favoritism. Wood did not do anything illegal and was not disciplined.

Wood and City Manager Greg Nyhoff did not get along well, and that sour relationship has not been healthy for anyone. There is always a natural tension between a CEO who wants to make changes and the legal counsel who is likely to be the one to say “no.” But there has to be mutual respect and cooperation, and we haven’t seen that between Nyhoff and Wood.

As the council begins to look for a new city attorney, we urge members to consider a couple of things:

• How often is the city using outside legal firms and can some of this work be handled in-house for less money? Or perhaps more of the work needs to be contracted out? The city attorney’s office has an almost $2 million budget, and at the budget hearings last spring, the attorney’s office asked for more staff and argued that its staffing level not only has dropped in recent years but is below that of many other Northern California cities.

• Obviously the council needs to have full confidence in the abilities of its top lawyer, and this is one of only three direct hires/reports for the council, but it also is important that the three charter officers work effectively together.

• Mayor Garrad Marsh suggested that one of the reasons Wood is leaving is that her salary of almost $156,000 is below comparable positions. The council should review the salary and, if it takes more money to hire a top-notch city attorney, then boost the salary range accordingly.

• With Councilmen Joe Muratore and Dave Geer not seeking re-election, there will be at least two new members on the council by late fall. The council should try to pace the recruitment process to give the incoming council members a voice in this critical hire. Given the city’s history, it could be many years before the position is open again.

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