• Alex Nitkin
    OCT 11, 2021

    Hike pay for city lawyers to head off staff shortages, Corporation Counsel tells aldermen

    Corporation Counsel Celia Meza answers questions from Ald. Brendan Reilly (42) during a budget hearing on Friday.

    Dozens of critical positions remain unfilled in the Chicago Department of Law, complicating the department’s efforts to fend off lawsuits that cost the city’s taxpayers tens of millions of dollars every year. And uncompetitive salaries are making it harder to address the shortage, the city’s top lawyer told the City Council on Friday.

    Corporation Counsel Celia Meza spent more than two hours fielding questions during a budget hearing for the city’s law department, which took its traditional spot at the tail end of departmental hearings. It was Meza’s first turn in the hot seat since becoming the acting head of the department last December, when Mayor Lori Lightfoot ousted previous Corporation Counsel Mark Flessner amid fallout over the botched 2019 police raid of Anjanette Young’s home. The City Council confirmed Meza to the role on a permanent basis in June.

    Related: City’s top lawyer resigns amid growing pile-on over city’s handling of Anjanette Young raid 

    The department stands to see its budget grow by nearly 7 percent as it adds 10 new full-time staff positions, reaching 427 employee slots for a 2022 budget of about $43.2 million under Lightfoot’s proposed budget plan.  

    But Meza had asked city budget officials for 20 new positions — even as her department struggles to fill 58 vacancies, including 37 unfilled attorney positions, she said.

    “Ten additional attorneys on top of the 10 I got would make a big difference,” Meza said. “That’s a lot more requests for outside counsel I’m going to have to send.”  

    The department’s wide use of outside contractors has been a source of agitation among aldermen for years as lawyers’ invoices pile on extra costs for the city. Meza said Friday that she is pushing to keep more cases in-house — but it’s harder for divisions that are short-staffed, like the department’s federal civil rights litigation division, where 13 slots out of 28 are currently vacant. Meza said the division has the “heaviest caseload” of the department’s entire staff.

    Related: Aldermen press city’s top lawyer on September letter warning against pushing for minority hiring beyond city goals`

    “It’s a problem,” Meza said. “That’s the division that handles the police…and then what ends up happening is that you increase the outside counsel.”

     The Chicago Police Department is budgeted to spend $82 million on legal settlements and judgments next year — an estimate drawn up by city attorneys based on the existing volume of cases approved by the council each month, Meza said.

    A growing contingent of aldermen from police-heavy wards have voted against approving some police misconduct settlements, arguing the city should take some cases to trial to fend of frivolous suits. 

    Related: Misconduct settlement stalls as aldermen weigh taking lawsuit discussions behind closed doors

    Ald. Marty Quinn (13) reiterated that call on Friday, citing a “concern” among his constituents that the city is paying out settlements to “known gangbangers and known drug dealers.”

    “I’ve been encouraging some of my colleagues not to vote for some of these things…you’re sending a message that you can sue the city and get away with it,” Quinn said.

    Meza replied that the department only suggests settlements on the merits of each case, and never out of a desire for her undersized staff to trim down its backlog of casework. But more staff would help — starting with a new “deputy overseeing risk management” whose “sole job” would be working with various departments to patch up their legal exposure, she said.

    Lightfoot in 2019 appointed Tamika Puckett as the city’s first ever chief risk officer with an eye toward reining in the legal payouts spurred by police and other city agencies every year. But Puckett left the role in November 2020 and the position has remained unfilled since.

    Salaries are a factor in staffing up the law department, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42) said on Friday. He asked if city leaders are “taking any measures to try to narrow the gap” between law department salaries and the higher pay offered by the Illinois Attorney General’s office — and in some cases, by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office.

    “I want to, and I would like your help in helping me to do that,” Meza said. She told aldermen that she asked the city’s Office of Budget and Management for 2.5 percent raises for senior staffers in the department, but she was turned down.

    At the outset of her career, Meza took a job with the law department because “the city paid more” than comparable jobs offered at the state and county level, she said.

    “Right now, our salaries are not as competitive — we used to be on top, and we’re not anymore,” Meza said. “When we are losing people to the county, things are not right.”

    Reilly suggested that the City Council and budget officials “take a really good hard look” at pay hikes for city attorneys, “if not in this budget, then for 2023.”

    “You’re right — the city should have the most attractive package,” Reilly said. “They’ve got lots and lots of money in the private sector, so we’ve got to get creative to fight for those talented kids coming out of law school if we want a bright and diverse law department.”

    Barely one-quarter of staffers in the law department “identify as being racially and culturally diverse,” Meza told aldermen in her opening remarks, a proportion she said is “not high enough.” She said she has impressed on her deputies “the need to increase our diverse hiring” and has redoubled her efforts with the department’s Committee on Inclusion and Diversity to close the gap.

    Diverse recruitment has “been a problem for decades” in the law department, said Ald. Leslie Hairston (5), a 22-year veteran of the City Council.

    “Each year, someone appears before this body and says they’re going to improve it,” Hairston said. “And they have not, to date.”

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