Milpitas is searching for a new city attorney, but this time they’re looking to hire someone full-time instead of continuing to contract out the city’s legal services.
The Milpitas City Council hired Chris Diaz of Best Best and Krieger back in 2015 with the intention of Diaz serving as the primary attorney and the city contracting help from the law firm’s other attorneys based on additional needs.
The council has been discussing hiring a full-time city attorney in closed session for months now, according to Mayor Rich Tran, who announced the news at the final council meeting before the current summer recess.
“The big difference for the city council is we are looking for someone who is going to be there more than two days a week,” Tran told The Beat. “Our contracted service with BBK, those attorneys typically service more than one jurisdiction.”
Tran, who noted he initiated the discussion of the city seeking full-time counsel, added that another factor for him is cost. Diaz and his firm charge by the hour, which the mayor said has made him hesitant over the years to pick up the phone and ask a question out of fear of “racking up a bill.”
But not everyone on the council is in favor of hiring an in-house attorney. Council members Anthony Phan and Karina Dominguez voted against pursuing a full-time attorney during the closed session hearing last month.
Dominguez told The Beat that it’s critical the city “continue on the path of building procedures that will provide checks and balances to what is, unfortunately, a political environment.”
“The only two positions that the city council has oversight and direct supervision over is the city attorney and the city manager per the charter of Milpitas,” she added. “It’s important for one of those positions to be external to provide a different perspective without retaliation.”
The councilwoman also said that the benefit of contracting with Diaz and Best Best and Krieger is that if Diaz doesn’t have the expertise on a particular issue, the city has access to a whole team of attorneys who may be knowledgeable on any given subject.
This won’t be the first time that Milpitas will have a full-time city attorney, though. Before the council contracted with Diaz and his firm, the city employed Mike Ogaz from 2007 until June of 2015 when the council fired him after a review of the cost of in-house counsel. Prior to that, the city had contracted with Oakland-based firm Meyers Nave for more than a decade.
In a May 2015 memo to the council, then-City Manager Tom Williams –– who resigned in 2017 –– wrote that Milpitas relied on outside counsel “extensively.” In the eight years Ogaz was attorney, the city relied solely on in-house legal help on three occasions, defeating the purpose of having a city attorney’s office altogether.
Current City Manager Steve McHarris, through spokesperson Charmaine Angelo, declined commenting on the council’s decision to hire a full-time attorney, instead citing that the “city is growing and going through a transformational time with several long-term projects underway so we are very busy.”
Angelo, however, did note that Best Best and Krieger have been working with them on a “seamless transition.”
The council is expected to form an ad-hoc subcommittee to address the matter, which Tran said will consist of himself and Vice Mayor Carmen Montano, who was one of two council members who voted against firing Ogaz in 2015. Tran said he has encouraged Diaz to apply for the job, as well.
Note: This article has been updated.