South Portland council divided over criticism of city attorney

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council was sharply fractured Tuesday in response to one councilor’s claims the corporation counsel plagiarized legal advice about regulation of short-term rentals.

Councilor Eben Rose made a formal request Sept. 8 for a workshop to discuss an October 2017 email sent to the council and city staff by attorney Sally Daggett. Rose alleges Daggett lifted sentences from a California company’s memorandum that discussed how cities and towns should approach short-term rental ordinances.

The company, Host Compliance, provides short-term rental compliance monitoring and enforcement solutions to local governments, according to its website.

There was no attribution of the statements and the four sentences were taken verbatim from the memo, Rose said.

Daggett and a local lawyer, however, both said the practice is routine.

At the Sept. 11 workshop Rose began by saying he wanted to make it clear he is not claiming a law was violated or there was copyright infringement. He said he sees the use of the memo without attribution as an ethical breach, and the only way to address the matter was through a public workshop, since Daggett is not a city staffer, but a contract employee.

As an outside consultant, Daggett, and the law firm she works for, Jensen Baird Gardner & Henry of Portland, are not considered city personnel and, as such, discussing personnel matters in executive session is not required, Rose said.

Councilors decided to meet again Oct. 9 to go over how to review Daggett, then scheduled an Oct. 23 closed-door meeting to conduct the review. The workshop requested by Rose has not been scheduled, but will publicly discuss his claims of plagiarism.

City Manager Scott Morelli confirmed Wednesday that there is no process in place for such a review.

Councilor Adrian Dowling seconded Rose’s motion to hold the workshop. He said Daggett should be granted the opportunity to defend herself.

Daggett, in a rebuttal drafted for the council, said the email containing the previously published material was an informal communication, and she does not often cite all sources in those types of circumstances.

She added the information has been used by many municipalities in regulating short-term rentals, said the sentences she used were done so fairly. “Only small passages of the original work were in my email and the effect of the use did not harm the author in any way,” she said.

Mayor Linda Cohen and Councilors Kate Lewis and Maxine Beecher said the public discussion about Daggett’s performance was an attempt to humiliate her. Cohen, in an email response to Rose after the meeting, went so far as to call it “reprehensible.”

Councilors Claude Morgan and Sue Henderson were absent from the meeting.

According to Rose’s request to the council, significant portions of Daggett’s memo of Oct. 30, 2017, which “served/serves as our legal opinion regarding STRs – was taken word-for-word without attribution from a white paper published by the private firm HostCompliance.com and offered to Council and staff as if the writing and research was original.”

Rose said the city paid $437.50 for the memo to be drafted. Morelli said Wednesday he would have to review the legal bill to confirm that claim.

Rose also suggested another law firm be retained to provide the city with legal counsel.

Jeff Selser, a resident and an attorney, said he felt the request was a personal vendetta against Daggett, and that it was a ridiculous claim and a waste of time and money. He said it is common in the profession to borrow language, and not cite it, especially in an email to clients.

“It’s extremely ordinary not to include all citations,” he said. “This is naive, vindictive, and not smart.”

Resident John Murphy, however, said the issue should come forward for public discussion. Murphy said he questions the advice given to the city, though he is not insinuating there was anything improper. He said he is in favor of having the city hire in-house counsel.

Linden Thigpen said she has had questions about the legal advice the city has received for years, not just about short-term rentals. She said there should be a better system for review or removal, since the counsel serves at the pleasure of the City Council.

In an email to Cohen and Morelli after Tuesday’s meeting, Rose said, “I personally expect better service from this contractor than to have such sparse legal opinions as was given for the STR issue, and then find out months later that they were partially plagiarized, and – as if that wasn’t enough – now we see denials that they were legal opinions at all. This makes no sense. This is unnecessary. And we can and must do better.”

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter@JulietteLaaka. 

Attorney Sally J. Daggett of Jensen Baird Gardner & Henry in Portland is South Portland’s corporation counsel.

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