Council keen to cut $1m legal bill

Dave Cull
Dave Cull
The Dunedin City Council is considering employing its own lawyer to help reduce its $1 million annual legal bill, it has been confirmed.

Council staff are putting the finishing touches on a business case for the change, which, if approved, would see an in-house legal counsel recruited.

The change aimed to reduce council costs and provide a more ''effective'' in-house legal service, particularly for simpler matters faced on a regular basis, council corporate services group manager Sandy Graham said.

It was expected more complex issues requiring specialist legal advice would still require the use of outside providers, she said.

They would also continue to be used in areas such as resource management, where independent advice was desirable.

''There are a lot of instances where you would still want independent advice,'' she said.

The council's legal bill had reached at least $900,000 in 2012-13, and topped $1 million in 2013-14, although exact figures - which were not available yesterday - were likely to be higher.

That meant the bill was ''now at a point where it makes sense to look at it'', although the change would see only a single legal counsel recruited by the council ''at this stage'', she said.

The initiative had been identified during the council's budget review process, but came after the council had grappled with a procession of complex - and controversial - issues in recent years.

That included the decision to build Forsyth Barr Stadium, Environment Court mediation over the harbourside rezoning and State Highway 88, and, most recently, the Environment Court hearing over Saddle Hill.

Lawyers have also been involved with the ongoing investigation into Citifleet, and its fallout, adding to the bill.

However, Ms Graham said the council's high-profile and difficult issues were only one part of the council's legal bill, which had been ''pretty consistent'' in recent years.

''We've always got big issues. Sometimes they are just different big issues, but we always seem to have one or two on the go at any one time.''

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull said the change would be an operational issue for council staff, led by chief executive Dr Sue Bidrose, but agreed it made sense to consider it.

''Obviously if you've got big issues you're going to have bigger legal bills, but given the range of risks that council confronts from time to time, we often feel the need to get legal advice on our position on relatively minor matters.

''They might appear minor, but the implications of them might not be,'' he said.

Deputy mayor Chris Staynes said the council's legal bill was already a ''big number'', but was being inflated as the Government pushed more regulatory work on to the local government sector.

It made sense to try to find ways of reducing that bill where possible, he believed.

Finance committee chairman Cr Richard Thomson also supported the initiative, if it delivered savings.

''Given the amount that we're spending on what seems to me to be relatively routine matters, I would've thought we could make some savings.''

chris.morris@odt.co.nz

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