Defying conventional wisdom, the Salt Lake County Commission has apparently concluded that the antidote to chaos is a few more lawyers.
The commission has hired one private attorney and wants to hire a second to represent the commission in a 1992 lawsuit involving the Hermes Associates development on Fort Union.Not surprisingly, the commission's decision made behind closed doors last week has heightened the tension between the commission and Salt Lake County Attorney Doug Short.
The commissioners hired Jay Gurmankin to represent Commissioners Brent Overson and Randy Horiuchi individually against allegations of malice contained in a proposed amendment to the lawsuit.
The same day, the commission also asked Pat Shea to defend the entire commission in the same lawsuit as the commission's redevelopment agency attorney.
The commissioners haven't discussed hourly rates with either attorney, but Horiuchi expects the fees to be somewhere in the $175-an-hour range. "We just haven't gotten that far yet," Horiuchi said.
Shea hasn't accepted the case yet. He told the commissioners he would first research whether the RDA had the authority to hire its own attorney and see if his own previous representation of another defendant in that lawsuit would be a problem.
Plans to retain Shea have been condemned by Salt Lake County Attorney Doug Short and Wally Bugden, attorney for the plaintiffs in the suit.
Short objects to hiring Shea because Short believes he himself is the RDA's counsel, and he believes Shea has a conflict of interest. A year ago, Shea was the attorney for Hermes Associates, the developers who built the Fort Union shopping complex.
"Mr. Shea has a direct conflict; an unequivocal conflict. He represented one party in this action, now he's trying to represent another," Short said.
Bugden agreed. "I absolutely think he has a conflict of interest. Certainly, on one level there is an irony: Mr. Shea trading hats and representing the developer one day and the County Commission RDA the next. That's what the lawsuit is all about: We say the RDA acted as an arm of the developer and had completely lost its independent character."
The commissioners' decision to hire the developer's attorney simply fuels that argument, Bugden said.
Shea can't take the case because he could be a potential witness, Bugden said. "We are going to want to depose Mr. Shea. I suspect that the commissioners will use as one defense the fact that they relied on what the lawyers told them. One of the lawyers they may have relied on will be Pat Shea. I won't know that until I depose Mr. Shea."
Earlier this week, Shea asked the Utah State Bar for a written opinion on the matter, he said. "I have received a written opinion that says there is no conflict in me representing the county because of representing this previous client," Shea said Thursday.
Short urged Overson and Horiuchi last week to hire their own personal attorneys to defend them against malicious conduct charges. If malice is proven against Overson and Horiuchi, the county may not indemnify the two officials, Short said.
If the court finds the two commissioners did act maliciously, they are not indemnified by the county, and defending that allegation may not be in the county's best interest, Short said.
The commission thought the letter meant the commission could also hire another lawyer to represent the RDA as well, Shea said. Not so, Short countered. Short's office sent Shea a letter last Friday telling him the county attorney's office will represent the RDA, Shea said.
Relatives of Eugene Croxford sued Hermes and the county because the family believes the county and developers violated their rights and broke the law.
The family now wants to amend its lawsuit after the Utah Supreme Court last fall overturned a judge's decision to dismiss the case. The county will likely object to the amendments, Shea said.
Croxford had spent most of his life on a tiny home on the south end of the proposed development. He refused to sell his home to the developers and sued.
Besides the allegations of malice, the proposed amendment asks the court to declare the RDA's contract with Hermes void, require Hermes to return approximately $600,000 in tax benefits and prohibit the county from paying an additional $5 million in future tax benefits.
The issue of Shea's possible conflict was raised last month when the commission hired Shea to help mediate problems between Short and the commissioners.