The strain between the City Council and the city's lawyers intensified last week during the latest budget dispute between the mayor and the Council.
The corporation counsel's office filed a lawsuit against the Council on behalf of Mayor Jacob A. Palillo, prompting the Council to hire an outside attorney -- Mark M. Jasen of Buffalo. It was the the fourth such action by the Council in less than two years.
Councilman Vincent R. Morello called for the Council to hire Jasen for the rest of the year because Morello claimed the corporation counsel is not representing both branches of government. Over the past couple of years, such complaints have become more frequent. Council Chairman John G. Accardo said the perception of the Council members is that the city administration controls the Law Department.
Corporation Counsel Douglas J. Crowley, the city's chief lawyer, said he couldn't comment on the latest dispute or on the ongoing criticism of his office by Council members.
"They're my clients and I don't want to be critical of my clients," Crowley said. "We do the best we can and we give them answers based on the law." Former Corporation Counsel Peter F. Comerford said the position of the corporation counsel is difficult.
"Your client is the city. The mayor is the chief executive officer of the municipal corporation. The Council is like the board of directors. So they are all your clients. When there's a power struggle or a difference of opinion as marked as this between the two branches, this is what can happen," Comerford said.
According to the City Charter, the mayor selects the corporation counsel but needs agreement of the Council to hire or fire him. The city attorney should be able to give honest independent opinion, Comerford said, and if either branch disagrees there are mechanisms to take it to court.
"The way it's written and the way it's set up it should work and in effect it does work," Comerford said.
The Council began putting funds for the hiring of consultants, such as lawyers, in the budget last year and this year set aside $15,000. Comerford, who also has worked in the City of Buffalo's Law Department, said the Common Council there has similar funds.
In 1990, when Comerford was corporation counsel, Palillo, then a councilman, called for the office to be made elective rather than appointive to keep advice and legal interpretations "free of political obligation and influence." The move was defeated by the Council, but had it been successful, it would have taken effect in 1992, when Palillo took office as mayor.
Comerford said when the new City Charter was being drafted the late Carl E. Mooradian, a former corporation counsel, also argued the office should be elective to avoid allegations of influence. The position is an elected one in the City of North Tonawanda.
Accardo said the Council must go to court "when our powers . . . in the charter are either being ignored or being rode roughshod over." But, he stopped short of saying the Council should have its own full-time legal adviser separate from the corporation counsel's office, asking if such a move would create a greater barrier between the two branches of government.
"Would it help the problem or make it worse," Accardo said. "It's a question and I don't really have the answer to it. . . . For right now, using Mark on as-needed basis is solving our problem. To make that a permanent position I think needs a whole lot of other discussion."
The problem, Accardo said once again, is the total breakdown of trust between the Council and the city administration and Law Department. He said, "We spend a lot of time fighting the system rather than solving the problem."