For the first time in nearly 30 years, West St. Paul will be represented by a new legal firm. City Council made it official on Monday night, though the change has been in the works for the past few months.
New City Attorney: Kennedy and Graven is the firm providing new legal services with Pam Whitmore serving as city attorney.
Old City Attorney: LeVander, Gillen, and Miller have provided legal services since the mid-1990s with Kori Land serving as city attorney since 2005.
Why the Change
City attorney is one of two positions the City Council directly hires and fires (the other being the city manager). The last time something like this happened was 2017 when a newly elected Council forced then-City Manager Matt Fulton to resign.
The issue of a new city attorney initially came up in October—as a surprise to Mayor Dave Napier and Council Member Dick Vitelli—resulting in a brief and tense exchange over the process. With limited time, they tabled the discussion until November.
A more in-depth discussion in November about whether or not to get bids from other firms ranged from simple financial stewardship to disagreements with Land.
Vitelli, the lone ‘no’ vote on getting bids, argued it was insulting to shop around in the middle of the contract. City staff noted that either party could terminate the contract and shopping around now meant the city could always stick with LeVander, Gillen, and Miller if they wanted to.
Earlier this month city staff interviewed three firms and recommended Council interview two finalists. Kennedy and Graven was the consensus choice after the Council interviews.
“LeVander, Gillen and Miller has been with the City of West St. Paul for decades—they have carefully and thoughtfully supported the city, the Council, and the staff, through countless changes,” said Gulley. “But our city has evolved and grown. A majority of the Council agreed that Kennedy and Graven would bring a fresh perspective and help us create a future vision for West St. Paul.”
- Financial: Council Member John Justen initially wanted to compare costs as a justification for getting bids. The contracts are structured differently, so it’s hard to directly compare coats—though they seem similar. But there are potential savings with the new firm.
- Moving ordinance writing in-house is one potential savings—where staff takes the first stab at drafting ordinances that are then reviewed by the city attorney. That staff-first approach is something advocated by City Manager Nate Burkett as a way to grow and hopefully retain staff and results in more readable ordinances. “There was a willingness to change,” Burkett said of LeVander, Gillen, and Miller. “But it just didn’t work out every time.”
- Another potential savings is that Kennedy and Graven was already handling legal work for development projects, that was then being reviewed by LeVander, Gillen, and Miller. Now it will be a more efficient process with less back and forth.
- Philosophical: Another reason came down to a difference in approach.
- Justen described LeVander, Gillen, and Miller as more conservative legally while the Council wanted to take bolder action: “We’re a changing city. I think we’ve got a lot of ambition. I think we want to do a lot of things and move a lot of things forward,” Justen said. “We need a firm that’s going to give us the real answers but is not going to necessarily push back so hard that it takes away the agency, if you will, of our residents and of our Council to do maybe risky things that are the right thing to do.”
- “I wanted a law firm that felt collaborative in a way I didn’t experience from LeVander,” said Council Member Robyn Gulley. “I felt like [Kennedy and Graven] were going to help shape the future of West St. Paul and I felt sometimes like LeVander was protecting the old vision of West St. Paul.”
- Disagreements: Over the past several years disagreements have come up on a range of issues including banning conversion therapy, applying the prevailing wage ordinance, and public art and the sign ordinance, among others.
“Legal advice is advice. There are lots of different ways of interpreting the law,” Gulley said at the November City Council meeting. “It’s all interpretation. It’s not a bad thing to want fresh eyes on things.”
“Rollin was my mentor He taught me the dos and don’ts of being a city attorney. But he also taught me pride, responsibility, ownership of your work, and loyalty to this community—not just to a client, but to this community. So when he retired, that was a big weight to carry on your shoulders. I was still pretty young, I had only been at the firm for six or seven years at the time. But I made sure every decision I made, everything I worked on was thoughtful and in the best interest of this community.”Kori Land
Land went on to list progress accomplished in West St. Paul during her and her firm’s tenure:
- Code enforcement to address problem properties (“A passion of mine, because it impacts people where they live,” Land said).
- Establishing the Economic Development Authority, which created a tool to redevelop the city.
- The Renaissance Plan, which created a new vision for Robert Street and the revitalization that happened over the past decade.
- Relationships with city staff.
“This is not just a client to me. I didn’t grow up in West St. Paul, but I did grow up in West St. Paul,” Land said. “It has left an imprint on my life. Just as my firm’s DNA is here and rooted in WSP, I want you to know that West St. Paul’s DNA is in mine.”
During the November meeting, before leaving the room for the discussion, Land expressed similar sentiments about her time in West St. Paul. She said she respected the Council’s prerogative to compare prices but hoped she could continue to serve in West St. Paul.
On Monday, the City Council expressed their gratitude to Land:
Confidence: “The growth that you helped us with along the way, I will never forget,” said Council Member Lisa Eng-Sarne, also crediting Land with giving her confidence at the Council table.
Commitment: “What you said is such a reminder of what we’ve done in West St. Paul,” said Mayor Napier. “[We couldn’t have done it] without your commitment and your passion for the City of West St. Paul.”
Kennedy and Graven will serve as the city attorney effective Tuesday, January 24.
- While Pam Whitmore will be the lead city attorney, Sam Ketchum and Mary Tietjen will serve as assistant city attorneys.
- Ketchum will cover City Council meetings and Whitmore will cover Planning Commission and Charter Commission meetings, though Whitmore can be available at City Council meetings when significant legal issues arise.
- Kennedy and Graven also has a team of more than 35 lawyers with different specialties that may be consulted as needed.
The City Council did approve an agreement with LeVander, Gillen, and Miller to cover the transition and finish work that’s still in process.
Local stories happen thanks to the generous support of our members. Please consider supporting West St. Paul Reader as a monthly or annual member.