BRUNSWICK — The town has replaced its law firm of 22 years with another firm the town hired last year to lobby on its behalf in Augusta.
Portland- and Augusta-based Preti Flaherty will take over from Portland-based Bernstein Shur after the Town Council on Monday voted 5-4 for the change.
Councilors Jane Millett, John Perreault, David Watson and Suzan Wilson opposed the change.
Before the vote was taken, Preti Flaherty partner Stephen Langsdorf, who is now the town’s chief legal representative, had to explain why the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar reprimanded him in 2009.
Councilors had tabled their annual appointment of a law firm from Jan. 6 because they sought clarification on the reprimand, which they learned about in late December 2013, a couple weeks after Chairman Benet Pols and Councilor John Richardson recommended hiring the firm in an executive session.
Langsdorf, who also represents the communities of Augusta, Chelsea, Jay and Rangeley, said the reprimand did not impact his ability to practice law or his long-time status as a firm partner.
He said the reprimand was issued because he listed Preti Flaherty as a guarantor for a Central Maine Power Co. utility account for an Augusta tennis club business he started with his wife in 2003.
Langsdorf’s partners were unaware of the situation until Preti Flaherty received a CMP bill for nearly $6,600 in October 2007, after the business was liquidated and Langsdorf and his wife had failed to pay debts to several creditors and vendors.
“As soon as I found out about it, we paid the bill immediately,” he said, adding that he was not part of the business’ day-to-day operations. “… There were a number of partners in my firm who were very upset about this … and I understood that, so I took responsibility for that and made the decision at that time to self-report this to the Board of Overseers.”
Langsdorf said he moved quickly to inform his municipal clients about the issue, which did not cause any of them to discontinue services.
Councilors said they were satisfied by Langsdorf’s explanation and that they would be comfortable with him serving as town attorney.
“It (alleviates) some of my concerns,” Watson said. “… I’ll be perfectly frank; if you are selected and your firm is selected, you will have to prove to me that you’re worthy.”
Although she said she did not necessarily want to change law firms, Wilson said Preti Flaherty’s appointment will be a “win-win” situation.
“I’m cautious about too many changes at one time,” she said. “At the same time, it’s very clear to me that even if I don’t get my way on that vote today, I’m still a winner because clearly your firm is very well qualified.”
When asked about his firm’s experience serving municipalities, Langsdorf touted his 15-year attendance record for the Augusta City Council and said he aims to provide objective opinions when faced with contentious council issues.
He also said transparency and public disclosure are also major values, noting his firm’s history of representing Maine newspapers.
“We’ve never had a dispute with any of the towns I’ve represented over whether or not something is public,” Langsdorf said. “… It’s not my job to say, ‘let me try to help you try to think up ways to keep this secret, that this may or may not be the right way.'”
In response to Langsdorf’s comments about transparency, Wilson – who is the council’s point person regarding Town Manager Gary Brown’s resignation and has previously refused to clarify his reason for departing – expressed concerns about newspapers “asking for more than they deserve.”
“What about when (the town) needs to be protected from not disclosing when they shouldn’t be, when they’re being asked very vociferously by the press?” she said.
Langsdorf said “the press knows we’re not in the game of trying to play games with them, but on the other side, it’s not a one-way street. … If we think (a record) is private, it’s private and we’re going to tell you that in the exact same way.”
Preti Flaherty was one of three candidates after the council agreed last fall to conduct its first bidding process for legal services. Bernstein Shur and Lewiston-based Brann & Isaacson were the other contenders.
The town had hired Preti Flaherty in January 2013 to lobby against legislation that town officials at the time said would supersede local control of economic redevelopment at the former naval air station now known as Brunswick Landing.
Pols said he and Richardson recommended the firm, in part, because it offered municipal, bond and legislative services under one proposal, unlike the two other firms.
“(The legislative aspect is) a facet of the practice that we felt is something we shouldn’t just pass up,” Pols said, noting that addressing legislative issues will be more “seamless” with Preti Flaherty’s expertise. “All other things being equal, it would have tipped things in their favor.”
Pols said the town’s fee structure with Preti Flaherty will be determined and announced at a later meeting.