York City to hire outside law firm to fill city solicitor role

Noel Miller
York Dispatch

York City is moving forward with its plan to replace its in-house solicitors with an outside law firm.

Former Solicitor Jason Sabol resigned in late February. Donald Hoyt, the city's part-time assistant solicitor, will leave in June. In their stead, much of the city's legal work will now go to Eckert Seamans, a national company with offices in Harrisburg.

Currently, the city budget has allocated $125,000 toward outside legal services. However, its Eckert Seamans contact calls for spending up to $250,000 per year with the firm.

York City Hall in York on Tuesday, Feb.21, 2023.

The city will be charged $260 per hour for the work of the private attorneys and between $160 and $260 per hour for the services of the group's paralegal staff, according to Gedd Schweikert, one of the attorneys with Eckert Seamans.

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Those rates are subject to change each year, according to the city's letter of engagement with the firm.

For comparison, the city's total legal budget for 2023 was roughly $261,000. Sabol was paid $42,460 for his work in the first two months of the year, according to city records.

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Kim Robertson, the city's acting business administrator, said Sabol himself suggested hiring an outside firm as part of his resignation process. Sabol has since joined the municipal law group at the York-based Stock and Leader firm.

If the city uses up the $125,000 it has allocated toward Eckert Seamans, Robertson said, additional funds could be transferred into the legal budget.

“That would be the plan, but we are going to do our darnedest to prevent that from being needed,” Robertson said.

Mayor Michael Helfrich speaks before lighting a candle during the 37th Annual Crime Victims' Rights Candlelight Vigil at Trinity United Church of Christ in York City, Tuesday, April 25, 2023. Dawn J. Sagert photo

So far, the city has estimated the 2023 legal expenses it expects to pay out to Eckert Seamans at $160,000.

“We cannot predict the future,” York City Mayor Michael Helfrich said. “Budgets are just roadmaps for where we might go.”

The firm was chosen after a bidding process that began in February, one day before Sabol's resignation. The other top-scoring firm was McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC, Robertson said.

In recent months, the city solicitor's office faced increased scrutiny in part due to revelations that York's elected controller, AliceAnne Frost, signed off on both sides of a contract with the nonprofit organization she led at the time, The Program, It's About Change.

York City Controller AliceAnne Frost

The solicitor's office was part of the contract review process, according to multiple people involved in the matter. The proposed contracts were pulled suddenly from the York City Council's March 21 agenda. Sabol has declined comment on the situation.

Frost, meanwhile, opted not to run for another term as controller and has since been named executive director of Tec Centro York, a nonprofit that provides bilingual educational and skills training.

Helfrich said outsourcing legal expertise is fundamentally a good thing for the city and will increase the breadth of legal advice available.

"I'm ecstatic," he said. "I think it's going to do the city a great service to have a team of 300 attorneys and all their paralegals and assistants working for the city. You know, the more eyes on things, the better off we are."

Schweikert, the Eckert Seamans attorney, has already represented the city for 17 years on special labor counsel work, he said at a meeting last week.

Brett Flower (left) and Gedd Schweikert (right) of Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott LLC. at the York City Council Meeting on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

Asked how she felt about the agreement with Eckert Seamans, City Council President Sandie Walker said she had no concerns. Walker said if the city isn't pleased with services, it can end the contract at any time.

"We'll have access to the firm and the attorneys that they have covering a wide range of topics," she said. "[I'm] looking forward to the services and how we'll move forward as a city."

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Under York City ordinances in Article 135, the solicitor is responsible for representing the city in legal actions brought by or against the city and rendering legal opinions to the council, mayor, department heads, administrative boards, the city controller and treasurer.

Councilperson Lou Rivera said he believed having a single solicitor represent both the mayor and council constituted a conflict of interest. He also expressed concern about the firm's minority employment and its lack of an office in the city, a requirement for the solicitor under city code.

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Schweikert said he didn't have exact figures available but noted that the firm did employ a "sizable" number of people of color, in addition to bilingual legal staff. He said the firm planned to use the city's current solicitor's office space.

The next York City Council meeting is at 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 6, in council chambers. It will be live-streamed on White Rose Television at https://www.wrct.tv/index.php and YouTube.

— Reach Noel Miller at NMiller3@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @TheNoelM.