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City slides Peterson from contract to staff

NORTH LIBERTY– The City of North Liberty now has an attorney on staff.
He’s a familiar face; Scott C. Peterson has served as North Liberty’s City Attorney since August 2006. Until now, Peterson has been a contractual employee. It is a common practice, particularly in smaller cities, to obtain certain services through contractual agreements, including those of an attorney, an engineer, and even law enforcement officers.
In North Liberty’s case, said City Administrator Ryan Heiar, it was a good idea, as well as a cost savings, to bring Peterson on as a regular staff person
“Over the last few years, legal costs continue to increase for the city, just based on the hours and the demands we’ve had for that position,” said Heiar. “Boiling it down to numbers, it makes sense to have someone on board. We have him involved in staff meetings, writing developers agreements, drafting ordinance updates and all those types of things, so it make sense to have him in the office and felt it could cut down our costs.”
Peterson will be a three-quarters time employee, beginning at a base salary of $82,000. According to the contract approved by the North Liberty City Council on June 14, Peterson will receive the same benefits as other full-time city employees, including health, life and disability insurance, sick leave and personal leave, retirement benefits, and 100 hours of paid vacation in his first year.
The North Liberty City Council offered up some questions as to whether or not the position should have been subjected to advertising and interviewing candidates for the position.
“We’re changing someone from a contract position to a staff position. Governments typically get accused of being closed and having closed process. I have a question as to whether or not this position needs to be publicized,” said council member Gerry Kuhl. “I don’t ever want to be accused of being non-transparent, not having an open government, not having adequate choices for people.”
Heiar told council he consulted with Attorney Bill Stone of Lynch Dallas P.C. in Cedar Rapids, who offered the opinion that an interview process was not legally required, as the city is only changing the method by which the attorney is compensated.
Mayor Tom Salm said if the city had advertised the position, there would be a lot of people spending time and effort to apply for the position, when there was no intent other than to keep Peterson on as the city’s representation.
“Is it fair for them to apply, knowing they have a slim opportunity in getting the job?” Salm said.
“I don’t care who the person is,” said council member Terry Donahue. “I don’t think they should have a free pass.”
Council member Coleen Chipman said if the city were unhappy with Peterson’s performance, this would be a good time to open his position. However, Chipman added, that’s not the case.
“We’re very happy with Scott’s performance, and can’t see any difference in hiring him as a contract employee versus as a city employee,” said Chipman.
Kuhl noted that the change represents a $59,000 savings to the City of North Liberty, based on the FY2011 budget number.
Kuhl suggested a change in Peterson’s contract regarding severance pay, asking to reduce the amount he would be paid in the event of his termination for anything other than just cause, from six months’ salary down to four. The council unanimously approved that change.
In the end, the council also approved Peterson’s contract 3-1, with Donahue dissenting and Chris Hoffman absent.
In addition, the city hired a half-time legal assistant to work with Peterson. The total cost in the city’s legal personnel services budget for FY2012 adds up to $146,171, said Heiar. The city’s FY2011 legal services budget was $205,000, excluding bond counsel and other types of specific legal services.
Peterson brings to the position roughly 27 years of experience of dealing with government and civil law. He graduated from the University of Iowa with a master’s degree in history and completed his law degree at the University of Iowa College of Law in 1984. He worked for the state ombudsman’s office for one year, then served in the Linn County Attorney’s office for nine years, with most of that tenure in the civil division. He has been in private practice since 1995, which allowed him to take on work as the City Attorney for the cities of Mt. Vernon, Palo and Walford, in addition to North Liberty. In 2006, he resigned his work with the City of Mt. Vernon so he could run for city council there. His four-year term as Mt. Vernon city councilor expires this year, but he remains undecided about whether or not he will run for reelection.
He did say he intends to remain a resident of Mt. Vernon.
“I live in Mt. Vernon, I was born and raised there,” he said. Peterson graduated from Mt. Vernon High School in 1971, went to the Naval Academy and served in active duty for 10 years before he returned to Iowa earn his law degree. “I have deep roots there, and I won’t be planning to move any time soon.”
Meanwhile, North Liberty is keeping him busy, and he expects that to continue.
“This is not so much a change for me,” said Peterson. “It’s a different arrangement but it will entail approximately the same amount of time and will be easier and better for the city and for me to make this move.”
Peterson said in his position as City Attorney, he represents the city as a whole and the public at large, as a collective entity.
“North Liberty is a young, growing city, with a lot of unique challenges that go with that,” he said. “I really have a great deal of regard and respect for the city representatives and the staff.”