By Anna Lothson
More than 50 applicants vied to be Oak Park's next village attorney — including Interim Village Attorney Simone Boutet — but last week Village Manager Cara Pavlicek announced that a new face will be joining the team soon.
Paul Stephanides, 48, an attorney and partner with the Chicago-based law firm Robbins, Schwartz, Nicholas, Lifton & Taylor Ltd., will take over the role of village attorney on Sept. 4. Stephanides, who earned his law degree from DePaul University in 1990 and his undergraduate in political science and economics, comes to the village with more than 20 years of municipal government-related legal experience. He will step into the role that Boutet has filled since June 2011 when former village attorney Ray Heise retired after nearly 30 years.
"As the selection process unfolded, Paul clearly offered the best mix of skills, experience and temperament to manage the complexities inherent in the position of village attorney for our community," Pavlicek said.
His starting salary for the position is $139,750, plus full benefits.
A national search process began in March, using Slavin Management Consultants, the Georgia-based search firm, which was also tasked last year with conducting the village manager search. That search resulted Oak Park hiring from within, but the village attorney search didn't continue that pattern. Pavlicek said she could not comment on other applicants, but Boutet responded via email about the outcome.
"I have enjoyed the opportunity to serve as village attorney," she wrote Monday "and to make a significant difference in my community during my term of service. Naturally, I am disappointed that I was not selected to continue in that role. However, it has always been my goal to provide top quality legal services to the Village of Oak Park in whatever capacity I can, and I look forward to continuing to do that in cooperation with Paul."
In September, Boutet will resume her role as assistant village attorney, making it the first time since Heise left that the law department has had more than one full-time lawyer.
Stephanides comes to Oak Park with municipal experience under his belt as senior assistant city attorney for Naperville as well as assistant general attorney for the Chicago Park District. In a news release sent by the village last Thursday, he said he was eager to work in Oak Park
"I have sought to serve as the village attorney for a major suburban community throughout my career and I have been waiting for the right opportunity," he wrote. "Oak Park is that opportunity. I am excited by the challenges and opportunities to learn, grow, and contribute to a great organization."
Pavlicek pointed to his mix of private and public sector legal work, which, she said, made him stand out as the best candidate for the job. The village attorney must have two different skill sets, she added, because the role involves being a department director but also legal counsel for the village. She said he was articulate during interviews about how he balance those roles and that made him the clear choice for the job.
Robbins, Schwartz, Nicholas, Lifton & Taylor Ltd is one of the firms Oak Park has used for legal services, but Pavlicek said the village didn't work directly with Stephanides.
Village board's role in choosing attorney
Per village code, the selection of Oak Park's village attorney is up to the discretion of the village manager. Because of this, Pavlicek explained that the village board solicited advice on what qualities they want in a village attorney, but didn't provide much guidance toward a specific candidate.
The board members held an executive session recently where they informally met with Stephanides, but it was up to Pavlicek to make the final call.
"There was a good sense that there was concurrence among my opinion that he was the most qualified for this position," Pavlicek said.
And while the village manager is charged to employ such a position, village code states that, "employment decisions by the Village Manager in relation to the General Counsel shall be reviewed with the board of trustees before final action."
Trustee Adam Salzman agreed it was important for Pavlicek to fulfill her job, but he also wanted clarification on the village board's role in selecting such a position. He'd also like to see that role redefined.
"The village attorney role is very broad," Salzman said. "I think it might possibly be too broad. But that's the way the council of government way works."
The general counsel advices the village board, according to the code, and is responsible for "processing and prosecuting violations of Village ordinances." The village attorney and village manager can also choose when to use outside counsel, but Salzman thinks there is room for tightening up the language of the village attorney's role.
"It's certainly open for debate," Salzman said. "There is nothing in the code that specifies when work should be done in house, and when it should be outsourced."
Because Heise came equipped with such "institutional knowledge," it never was an issue, but board members have continually brought up the concept of defining how the law department works during "special protocol sessions." Salzman, himself an attorney, said this is an example of a "lingering question" trustees have pondered updating but have yet to.
Still, he doesn't anticipate major changes in the code language happening anytime soon because of the complicated nature of doing so. Salzman did, however, suggest it's worth at least clarifying.
Regardless of the Salzmann's concerns about code logistics, he said he was impressed with the search process and the diverse pool of candidates the job post attracted. What stood out to him about Stephanides was his breadth of experience and personality.
"He seemed very bright, personable and had a good sense of humor," Salzman said. "All those characteristics will serve him well in this position."
And despite concerns about the selection process, Salzman agreed it was best to let Pavlicek have the latitude to do what she felt best for the position.
"I do think we ended up with the best candidate," he said.
Trustees Bob Tucker and Collette Lueck said they didn't spend much time with the candidate but were able to have a good conversation to get to know him. They both agreed the process, especially using the search firm, was beneficial to finding the right candidate.
"He was someone who could really get the message out there," Tucker said about Bob Slavin, the president of the consulting firm. "He demonstrated a good working knowledge of what Oak Park is about and what Oak Park needed in terms of this position.
Lueck agreed it was best to let Pavlicek choose the final candidate because of the confidence needed in the day-to-day working with the village attorney. The dynamic between the two is key, added Lueck, who didn't feel the board's perspective played a role in determining what that was.
She also agreed that using a search firm was beneficial, in large part to the time-intensive labor needed for such an important search. Slavin's connections in the municipal realm across the country was also helpful, Lueck said.
"I know the community doesn't like spending money on consultants and I understand that concern, and I share the concern. I think what is helpful is consultants only get paid to do only one job…It's a one-time payment,' Lueck said. "They are in and out. In that case, they are very cost effective in terms of what you get."