City attorney retirement is new opportunityThe announcement that City Attorney Gary Baum will retire Oct. 31 after six years heading Palo Alto's legal department provides the City Council a solid opportunity to examine the role of both the office and the new attorney.
City Attorney Gary Baum's announced retirement Thursday offers City Council members an opportunity for a fresh, more proactive approach to city legal matters
Baum, while personally liked, has been the subject of frequent public criticism from some council members for a general lack of initiative in helping city officials find ways to accomplish goals. Instead, his pattern has been a tightly conservative "safe" approach of listing reasons why something couldn't be done, according to critics on the council.
"Proactive" is a term used for what officials might look for in a new attorney.
In addition, Baum has been criticized for his advice on things as significant as a city plan to charge sidewalk repairs to homeowners — in which he failed to advise the council that such an action might violate state Proposition 218 provisions requiring voter approval.
Some council members were frustrated by his report listing reasons the city should not respond to a Google offer to create a "fiber to the premises" communications network for a community that met specific qualifications. Palo Alto's application is still pending at Google.
Perhaps the biggest recent concern was the drafting of the Business License Tax proposal that went down to a sound voter defeat last November. The proposal was widely criticized, including by the Weekly, for being too complicated, confusing and bureaucratic.
Baum deserves credit for some cost-cutting in his office. He also is admired for his pro-bono work on behalf of victims of domestic violence, for which he has received two major awards in recent years.
The search for a new city attorney will start with selection by fall of a "headhunter" firm to identify qualified applicants, from which the council will select two or three finalists for interviews. Whether finalists' names are made public will be a council decision, although Councilman Larry Klein, chair of the Council Appointed Officers committee, favors that — and we agree. He said he expects a new attorney to be named by the end of the year.
We expect the council to focus on a new attorney's ability to be more proactive and anticipate legal issues involved in matters before the city, or initiatives of the city.