West heads in a new direction


Lawyer prepares to retire after 20 years as Ann Arbor's city attorney

By Jo Mathis
Legal News

Spend 10 minutes watching senior city attorney Bob West interacting with a bunch of college kids who've been charged with open intoxication/excessive noise/ at a recent Michigan football game, and you just might believe the man deserves a raise. No matter how much he makes.

The questions keep coming:

"How will this affect my record?"

"Should I plead guilty or not guilty?"

"How come they can drink on the Pioneer lot and I can't drink on the sidewalk across the street?"

"When the police came to our party, I should have run away. Like my friends."

"Where do I mail the check? What's the address? What's the zip code? Can I call you if I have questions? What's your number?"

West, who answers every one without a hint of impatience, would do much the same the next morning at traffic court, where he's heard every excuse in the book for why a driver misbehaved.

Still, when West shut down his computer before heading home the other day, he paused for a moment to realize something: In less than four months, he'll turn off that computer and never come back.

Though he's looking forward to the freedom, West knows he's going to miss many things about working for the city of Ann Arbor, a job he's held for 20 years.

"I enjoy the interactions of the district court-as much as a grind as it can be," he said, adding that he has a deep respect for the District Court bench, the probation office and the specialty courts.

West was born in Ann Arbor and raised on the west side about a mile from where he now lives with his wife, Mary Beth. He earned his degree in political science from Eastern Michigan University before graduating from the University of Toledo Law School in 1979. He spent a decade working for the Washtenaw County Public Defender's Office followed by five years as a trial lawyer for the law firm of Bishop & Shelton. He accepted the job at the city attorney's office in 1995.

West's job managing complex civil litigation for the city in state and federal courts and misdemeanor ordinance violations and civil infractions in 15th District Court in Ann Arbor is not one every lawyer could easily handle, says Judge Elizabeth Hines.

"In his role as the prosecutor in city ordinance violations and traffic hearings, Bob routinely interacts with people representing themselves, not just lawyers," she said. "He is unfailingly courteous and respectful as well as an accomplished legal advocate representing the city's interests."

In his long career, West has fought on behalf of both the defendant and the plaintiff, and has empathy for both.

"There wasn't anyone ever who we represented in our plaintiffs firm who was seriously injured who wouldn't have traded every dollar they ever got if they could just go back to their pre-injured state," he said, referring to his years at Bishop & Shelton. "The money was never a good trade-off."

"On the other hand, I also enjoy doing this work for the city, and I realize I am working against the interests of people who were injured-not just claimed to be injured but in some cases really were injured, but for whatever reason can't fit their claim within an exception to immunity," he said. "We've collectively saved the city a great amount of money in settlements. And when you look at other cities, they pay out humongous sums of money to settle lawsuits. We don't do that here. If you have a good claim, we will pay you. But if your claim is lacking in some respect, we will make you prove your claim, and if you can't, you can't. And we won't pay you."

Over the past 20 years, student parties in Ann Arbor have gotten bigger, louder and more alcohol-fueled, West said. West works with the students to avoid having them up with criminal convictions, while at the same time trying to discourage the behaviors that led to the tickets in the first place.

Unlike the misdemeanor criminal docket where few people are represented, many come to traffic court docket with a lawyer-which West said is usually a waste of their money.

"We're talking two-point civil infraction tickets," he said. "In the big picture, it's not a big deal. It's not the end of the world. Pay your fine. Drive better next time. And move on."

West says his boss, City Attorney Stephen Postema, came on board following a tumultuous time at the city, and not only brought tremendous organization and focus to the office, but hired some outstanding attorneys and support staff who have worked well together ever since.

"It's been completely harmonious for these 10-11 years," West said. "Whatever difficulties existed in the past, they've all been left in the past. There's been no fallout from that."

Postema said West is highly respected by local police officers because of his knowledge of the law and understanding of the vital role of the police in the community.

"Bob West has been an excellent public servant and colleague," he said in a statement. "He is highly regarded by the judges and local attorneys. He has dealt with a large number, and a wide variety, of people. He always treated individuals fairly while holding them accountable for their actions."

West is already training his successor, Tom Kent, an Ann Arbor native who had been working in the Flint city attorney's office, and another "talented" Postema hire, he said.

West, whose official retirement date is Jan. 2, turns 62 in November, and wants to travel and relax while he's still healthy and young enough to enjoy it. His wife will also soon retire after 42 years working in offices at the University of Michigan Medical Center. Their only child, daughter Blair, 29, is a security guard living in Hamtramck.

But West won't be leaving his profession entirely. He'll fill in for attorney Anna Frushour when she goes on maternity leave this winter, and possibly get on the appointment list at District Court when there's a conflict that Frushour and partner Tricia Reiser can't take. He will also take on a few civil case evaluations in Circuit Court.

And since the 1990s, West has volunteered his time to lead students on the award-winning mock trial teams from Community High School. The season runs from October to May, and in the months leading up to nationals, he helps the students four evenings a week.

"We're the team to beat in Michigan," he said, noting that CHS has been the state champ the last four out of five years.

As he winds down his fulltime law career, West feels good knowing that he'll stay connected to the profession he's enjoyed for so long, while having some breathing room as well.

But he knows he'll miss it.

"This is a top-notch office," he said. "I can't imagine a better place to work."

Published: Fri, Sep 12, 2014