In December, new Clark County Commissioner David Madore, then a commissioner-elect, told a handful of elected officials from small cities that the county could provide them legal assistance.
But the county's chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney, Bronson Potter, says such an arrangement isn't allowed under state law.
The issue arose this week when Madore acknowledged he'd met with officials from Ridgefield and Yacolt, and suggested the county could provide legal advice or knowledge to them, if they asked for it.
In Ridgefield, Mayor Ron Onslow said Madore mentioned the topic without being prodded. "It was kind of out of the blue," Onslow said.
For his part, Madore said he's only trying to help the county's small cities.
Potter said state law is clear on what actions the county's counsel may take, and providing legal advice to cities is not one of them.
After all, Clark County and its cities could find themselves on opposite ends of litigation, which would create a conflict of interest.
County could pay
Although cities and counties are prohibited from using the same counsel, there's one approach the county could take to help small cities that can't afford legal fees: "The county commissioners do have the ability to hire an attorney outside the chief civil prosecuting attorney," Potter said.
Through that process, county commissioners would have to approve the hiring of a temporary attorney, and the presiding superior court judge would have to sign off on it, Potter said.
In Potter's recollection, that was last done a few years ago when county commissioners hired an outside attorney to review a legal opinion on stormwater, which Potter's office had approved.
It's "very uncommon in Clark County," Potter said.
Madore said it was his job as a commissioner to get answers to questions about state and federal laws, so the county, and towns within it, know how to comply.
"If the staff or representatives of these towns need some questions answered, clarification or advice on any issue, they are welcome to share their questions with me or the other commissioners," Madore said. "Those questions can be asked of our legal staff."
In Yacolt, Madore said, he met with officials to discuss ways to help the town of 1,605, which struggles financially, Madore said.
He said he invited Yacolt to save its "precious resources on operations and maintenance" and let the county help it become more knowledgeable on legal issues.
He said Yacolt could easily burn through much of its operating budget on legal fees just to be advised on how to comply with the law.
Yacolt Mayor Jeff Carothers strongly denied that Madore suggested the county could provide the town legal services, however.
He said town officials wouldn't be interested in the arrangement if Madore had made the suggestion. "We have our own attorney."