The county privatized legal services for certain public agencies when former assistant Erie County prosecutor Terry Griffith retired in December 2006. It was a plan, officials said, to save taxpayer money while at the same time retaining an experienced attorney.
But the "save taxpayer dollars" argument to justify the change doesn't hold much water, given that the arrangement actually cost taxpayers tens of thousands more in expenditures.
Griffith has the potential to bill more than $500,000 in fees for the period 2007 through the end of this year under the private contracts she has with the county Health department, the disabilities board, the county engineer's office and the city of Huron and Huron Township.
Erie County Health Department director Pete Schade and former county disabilities board director Jerry Plassenthal both signed contracts for Griffith's services. Griffith served as legal counsel to both agencies while she was an assistant prosecutor. Schade said it was important to retain the services of an experienced attorney.
But excuse us for questioning whether these two relatively small agencies are being operated efficiently if their leaders see a need to have an attorney on retainer. Both agencies have access to legal counsel from the county prosecutor's office at no charge, and there are other avenues to obtain expert legal services through professional associations. It is certainly not clear that these expenditures can be justified given those other, less expensive alternatives.
It also is not clear exactly what the rationale was behind this move, but it's obvious, we believe, that the arrangement represents bad public policy and should be reversed when the contracts expire later this year. Otherwise, officials have added one big expense item for years to come in the burden column for taxpayers.