Public Works Director Walter Veselka, left, talks to attorneys Jeff Steeg, center, and Dale Clift, right. (Mike Orazzi/The Bristol Press) (Note: If you can't see all three men, then click on the picture and you can see all of it.)
Two city lawyers -- Dale Clift, the city attorney, and Jeff Steeg, an assistant city attorney -- turned in letters of resignation Tuesday because, they said, they could not afford the part-time positions without benefits.
The move immediately caused city politicians to begin facing off about how best to handle the unexpected development.
The resignations, effective June 1, could yet be reversed if the city and its lawyers can reach some sort of deal.
A closed-door, executive session at the end of Tuesday’s City Council meeting focused on Clift’s decision. Both Clift and the city’s personnel director were included in the meeting.
But even that was a victory for city councilors who wanted the issue dealt with immediately.
Mayor Art Ward said he didn't want to talk about the resignations of the lawyers until he could talk over the issue with the city's personnel director, Diane Ferguson.
But several city councilors said they didn’t want to wait.
City Councilor Craig Minor said the council needed to talk about it immediately – in secret – and made the successful motion to do so.
"We have to do a lot of talking," city Councilor Cliff Block said."We need to sit down and find out what's happening," city Councilor Ken Cockayne said.
City Councilor Mike Rimcoski said he understands the decision made by the pair and isn't sure what will happen next.
"I just don't like being forced into a corner," Rimcoski said.
Rimcoski said that he wants to talk with the rest of the council about the issue "and see if there's anything we can do."
The city attorney's office has two full-time lawyers, Richard Lacey and Ann Baldwin, and three part-time posts, including the city attorney's slot. But one of those posts has been empty for months because they council has refused to consider Mayor Art Ward's choice for it, Edward Krawiecki, Jr, a former city attorney.
If Clift and Steeg step down, all three part-time lawyer jobs would be vacant, leaving only the two full-timers.
Rimcoski said that if Clift and Steeg depart, Ward might wind up having to pay outside lawyers -- at a cost that could easily exceed the cost of health care coverage -- in order to ensure Bristol's legal work gets done.
"Two people can't handle it all," Rimcoski said.
Block said he thinks the mayor's failure to fill the vacancy in the attorney's office contributed to the problem there because it burdened the four lawyers with too much work.Ward said he might consider replacing the two part-timers with another full-time attorney.The mayor also said that given the state of the economy, it may be possible to hire two new part-time lawyers to take the place of Clift and Steeg "that are no clamoring for benefits."
In Clift's resignation letter, the city attorney said the workload "exceeds what I can provide. The modest compensation, without benefits, and the time these duties take away from my private law practice have presented a financial dilemma that I must resolve, regretfully, by leaving."
Clift has been city attorney for more than a year. Before that, he served more than a dozen years as an assistant city attorney.
Steeg, who works with Clift in private practice, has been an assistant city attorney for nine years.
His resignation letter states that he has to give up his position with "a heavy heart" because of "the lack of health insurance benefits offered by the city."
Steeg also pointed out in his letter that some other part-time city workers and even some non-city employees do get coverage.
"I have to work more files and generate more income from my private office in order to pay for the skyrocketing cost of health insurance," Steeg wrote.
Ferguson said there at least two part-time city employees in one of the unions who get benefits, but added the city has been trying to phase out part-time benefits for years.
Wednesday morning update:
I didn't know the numbers early enough to get them in the story last night, but Clift makes $33,000 annually from the city and Steeg gets $27,000.
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Contact Steve Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org