Lawsuits test Portland's legal staff

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PORTLAND — Amid two high-profile lawsuits, and with another possibly looming, the city might seem to be under a legal siege.

But for Danielle West-Chuhta, Portland’s chief attorney, the recent flurry of motions, briefs and hearings is just another day at the office.

In her five years working for the city, West-Chuhta said she doesn’t recall having to deal with such heavily scrutinized cases at the same time. “But much of the time, we’re working at this pace on other matters,” she said in an interview. “We have to be good multi-taskers.”

West-Chuhta’s multi-tasking skills were put to the test in September, when the city was sued twice in as many days over actions by the City Council.

A lawsuit filed by the Friends of Congress Square Park may result in a citizens’ initiative strengthening preservation of public open spaces, including the plaza at Congress and High streets.

The group sued after the city rejected the Friends’ petition for the initiative and the council later approved selling a portion of the plaza to the developer of the former Eastland Park Hotel.

The city withheld the necessary petition forms, claiming the initiative would violate state and city laws. Last month, the Friends won permission in Superior Court to begin the petition, and two weeks ago claimed to have collected more than twice the 1,500 signatures required.

But the city has appealed to the state Supreme Judicial Court. A date for hearing the appeal has not been set.

Another lawsuit, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine on behalf of three city residents, seeks to overturn a recent ban on loitering along street medians.

In July, the council passed the ban, which was touted as a public safety measure. But critics said it was a thinly disguised attempt to stamp out panhandling in the city. In its complaint, the ACLU claimed the loitering ordinance is “overbroad” and violates the residents’ constitutional rights to free speech.

That suit was scheduled to be heard in federal court on Tuesday.

A third suit may be triggered by the council’s decision Monday night to impose a protest-free buffer zone around reproductive health care facilities, including the Planned Parenthood clinic at 443 Congress St.

The clinic, which performs abortions, has been the target of weekly protests that some say harass and threaten patients. The anti-abortion protesters have vowed to challenge the buffer-zone ordinance in court.

Councilor Ed Suslovic, who chairs the council committee that drafted the ordinance, recently said the prospect of such a challenge “isn’t a question of ‘if,’ it’s a question of ‘when.'”

West-Chuhta said a possible buffer-zone suit is “on our radar screen” and that the city might have to hire outside counsel to handle it.

Besides West-Chuhta, who serves as corporation counsel, the city’s legal team includes three other attorneys. Jennifer Thompson has been leading the city’s response to the Friends’ lawsuit; Trish McAllister, the city’s neighborhood prosecutor, is handling the loitering suit. Attorney Lawrence Walden works on insurance matters and other cases.

Beyond its budget for routine legal work, the team has about $10,000 a year to contract for outside legal services. Depending on the nature of a suit, that amount could be exhausted quickly.

“Litigation is extremely time-focused,” West-Chuhta said. “Court deadlines, discovery … these are very time-sensitive functions.”

In the past, the city has relied more heavily on outside counsel, she said. But since being named to lead the legal team in January, West-Chuhta has been trying to do most work in-house.

She pointed out that the team handles legal matters for all city departments and their more than 1,400 employees. Zoning appeals, code enforcement issues, personnel matters and other day-to-day legal work may not make headlines, but keeps the team busy.

“It’s coincidental that (the lawsuits) have come about at the same time,” West-Chuhta said. “But all the issues we deal with are potentially large issues … you roll with the punches.”

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.