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Fargo city leaders skip bidding process, extend city attorney's contract

Erik R. Johnson

FARGO — City Attorney Erik Johnson's firm has had its contract extended for another five years after city leaders decided Monday, Nov. 6, to avoid seeking bids from others in the legal community.

City Commissioner Tony Gehrig, the lone dissenter in the 4-1 vote, said the city should put out a request for proposal just like it would for other contracted professional services, such as architects and engineers. He said that way it can ensure that Erik R. Johnson & Associates offers the best deal.

The contract is worth $4 million to $5 million, he said. "This is not chump change."

But the majority of city commissioners agreed with city staff, who cited Johnson's deep knowledge of the city's legal history, the large number of ongoing cases his firm is handling, the breadth of services provided and good reviews from department heads.

Commissioner John Strand said he normally would agree with Gehrig's idea, but Johnson's decades-long institutional knowledge is invaluable.

Commissioner Dave Piepkorn said with so many legal issues the city attorney's office now handles, it would cost a lot of money to get any new law firm up to speed.

The city's Finance Committee earlier reviewed Johnson's contract and recommended a contract extension, citing these issues, including buyouts for flood protection projects, personnel issues and contract negotiations.

The current city attorney's contract, which includes general legal services and prosecution services, runs from mid-2012 to the end of this year. In practice, it works a lot like if Johnson's team is another city department working off a budget set by city leaders. The city and Johnson's firm can terminate the contract at any time with a 90-day notice.

From 2013 to the end of this year, the city has budgeted $4 million for the city attorney's office. The actual amount spent so far is $4.4 million. In 2018, the office has a budget of $899,630.

"We're getting a very reasonable value," City Administrator Bruce Grubb told commissioners. His staff looked at the budget for city attorneys in several peer cities, he said.

In Sioux Falls, the city attorney's office has a budget of $1.9 million; in Topeka, Kan., $1.2 million; in Rochester, Minn., $1.5 million; and in Billings, Mont., $1.4 million, he said.

Johnson became city attorney in 2007, but was an assistant city attorney under former City Attorney Garylle Stewart, his old law partner, for two decades up to that point.

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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