Modesto council to start discussion on finding city attorney replacement

09/20/2013 7:01 PM

09/21/2013 7:37 PM

The Modesto City Council will meet Tuesday for its first discussion on the impending resignation of City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood, who has been the city’s top legal adviser for more than seven years.

Mayor Garrad Marsh called for the closed-door discussion at Tuesday’s council meeting. He said he and council members will talk about how to find an interim city attorney to fill the gap before Wood’s successor is picked.

Wood, 50, is resigning effective Nov. 15, but her last day on the job will be Nov. 8.

Marsh said the council’s options for the interim appointment include picking one of the attorneys in the city attorney’s office or picking an attorney from a law firm. He said when Wood’s predecessor, Mike Milich, retired in late 2005, the city used an attorney from a law firm.

Wood, 50, has not responded to requests for comment since Tuesday. She was not in the office Friday and is on vacation next week. But in her resignation letter dated Sept. 15, she wrote: “The time has come for me to pursue other opportunities that have been presented.”

Wood’s resignation has caught Marsh and council members by surprise. They have said they don’t know what her future plans are. Marsh has said he suspects Wood is leaving for a better-paying job. He said she has talked about how she is underpaid relative to city attorneys in comparable communities.

She is paid $155,838 annually and has about 20 years’ experience working for Modesto, Stockton and Sacramento. Based on a sampling conducted Friday by The Bee, here’s how her salary compares with some of her counterparts:

•  The Stockton city attorney makes $205,000 in a city of about 296,344 residents
•  The Turlock city attorney makes $185,328 in a city of about 69,888 residents
•  The Merced city attorney makes $174,463 in a city of about 80,519 residents
•  The Fresno city attorney makes $175,000 in a city of about 508,453 residents
•  The Lodi city attorney makes $140,004 in a city of about 62,390 residents
•  The Tracy city attorney makes $175,000 in a city of about 84,060 residents

This information came from the cities’ websites or city officials. Modesto has about 200,000 residents.

Marsh said what Modesto can afford to pay could make it hard to recruit a city attorney. “In our budget, we are going to have a difficult time,” he said.

He expects the city will use a consultant to help it find its next city attorney, in part because he and the other council members are not attorneys. That decision will come at a later council meeting.

Marsh said Modesto’s next city attorney will need expertise in several legal areas, from labor law and land use and development to utilities law and code enforcement.

For instance, Marsh said if voters pass the 1 percentage point sales tax on November’s ballot, he’d like some of that money to go toward more code enforcement to deal with drug houses, blighted properties and other neighborhood nuisances.

Labor law also is important because the city has had to persuade its labor groups to take concessions, such as having its members pay more toward their pensions, as the city has cut its budget over several years because of the recession.

The City Council meets Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. in the basement chamber of Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St.

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