In a bid to contain fees it pays to attorneys representing the village of Brookfield, the board of trustees voted unanimously on April 22 to change the way it pays the law firm Storino, Ramello & Durkin.

Instead of paying a straight hourly fee for all legal work done for the village, the village will now pay a flat monthly rate of $12,500 for general legal services plus $1,200 per month for prosecuting cases in Cook County Circuit Court. The agreement does not cover all types of legal representation, such as defending federal lawsuits, which will increase payments beyond that amount.

“We’re trying to achieve more controllable, consistent costs on general legal services, and we think this accomplishes that,” said Village Manager Timothy Wiberg.

Brookfield has seen its legal fees rise consistently over the past four years, with the village paying out just a hair under $500,000 in 2018.

According to Finance Director Doug Cooper, the 2018 legal fees were high for a couple of reasons. Significant staffing changes required additional legal work, said Cooper, and the village also expended a larger amount in 2018 in prosecuting code violation cases. 

In addition, the village incurred legal costs related to the establishment of two special assessment areas related to paving alleys.

“These were the significant items, but given any year, sudden and unexpected situations can occur which would increase attorney involvement,” Cooper said in an email.

While 2018’s legal fees were particularly high, those charges had been trending upward in recent years. In 2015, the village paid $267,471 for legal services, according to that year’s financial audit.

That figure spiked to $356,309 in 2016 and jumped the following year to $367,372. The 2019 budget estimated spending $413,000 for legal services.

“We can’t afford to keep paying that kind of money,” Wiberg said.

The monthly retainer fee will cover routine legal representation, including attendance at regular board meetings and responding to elected officials and staff asking for general legal advice.

The fee also covers preparing ordinances and resolutions, reviewing bid documents and contracts, reviewing extraordinary FOIA requests of 100 pages or less, monitoring litigation and reporting to the board and village manager on pending litigation.

The retainer fee does not include attendance at special meetings of the village board, meetings of advisory commissions, negotiating union contracts, litigation in state or federal courts, prosecuting matters before the local adjudicator, legal services related to special assessments, TIF districts or zoning and other typically infrequent matters.

“With the hourly billing arrangement, there was kind of a disincentive for staff to call the attorney, because they didn’t want to get billed for it,” Wiberg said. “That model did not work to encourage collaborative work between the attorney and staff.”

Village Attorney Richard Ramello told village trustees on April 22 that the $12,500 monthly figure was arrived at by looking at monthly trends. He also said that monthly figure could go up or down in the future.

Both sides will sit down in six months to review how the agreement is working.

“If the village is only consuming $10,000 per month we’ll make a reduction,” Ramello said. “If it’s more than that, I’ll sit down with [the village manager and village president] and work out an equitable agreement.”