Add legal work to the list of jobs that the Village of Oak Park may be outsourcing to save money.
In recent years village hall has farmed out a bevy of functions, including everything from crossing guards to street sweeping. Now, with the departure of longtime Village Attorney Ray Heise earlier this year, the legal work may be up for grabs to the lowest bidder.
"When there's an opportunity to look at doing something differently, I think we need to take a look," Trustee John Hedges said at a meeting on Monday. "Whether we change or not, I don't know."
Currently, Oak Park has a legal staff of three, which includes the assistant village attorney, a secretary and someone who manages insurance claims. In past years, village hall has had as many as three in-house lawyers.
Work for the staff includes advising elected officials on lawsuits, crafting ordinances and managing outside legal work. Wednesday Journal reported earlier this year that Oak Park spent some $800,000 on outside attorneys in 2010, along with another $500,000 on its legal staff.
Village research has found that Oak Park's legal costs are at the "top tier" of similarly sized communities, and that other comparables have been farming out some or all of their legal work.
So, Oak Park plans to send out a call to law firms in the near future, asking them to submit proposals for doing some or all of those services. The village board is expected to review that information sometime in early 2012.
Simone Boutet, the acting village attorney, urged trustees on Monday not to completely outsource the law department. She said the village attorney acts as the quarterback for all legal functions of the organization, and is constantly fielding questions from employees and the public. It's typically smaller, less complex communities — such as River Forest, Lombard and LaGrange — that completely rely on outside counsel, she added.
"You'd have to take the entire file cabinets that exist in the law department and ship them off to someone's office to become familiar with things, and somebody has to be here to quarterback all the services," she said.
Trustee Ray Johnson asked village staff to be careful not to hire an outside law firm that might end up costing more. Oak Park spent more than $200,000 per year in 2010 and 2011 on outside lawyers to negotiate union contracts, and he thinks a hiring a staffer would be cheaper. Some communities are cutting down on outside lawyers; Evanston is tripling its legal staff, Boutet said, from two to six.
"I want to make sure we look at this with a very critical eye," Johnson said. "The early analysis seems to say that we could save money by having an in-house attorney."