After 21 years in the department, including the past nearly two years as County Counsel, Ed Knapp is hanging up his “neologisms” and closing his “Brown Act for Dummies” book. Knapp spends hours every week sitting at the County Counsel’s table in the Board of Supervisors chambers answering or being ready to answer any legal questions a supervisor or staff member may put to him. And sometimes, completely unlawyer-like, he even says, “I don’t know.”
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He does, however, know “Knapp’s law of public meetings — The hot air expands to fill the time allotted.”
Knapp laughs telling about moving from New Hampshire in 1971 in an old beater. “Wherever the car dies is where we’ll stay,” he recalled. The car made it all the way to San Francisco, so that became home. With three years of engineering study at Carnegie Tech and a few terms majoring in English at Boston University, law school seemed a natural choice, he said, with characteristic tongue-in-cheek. It was Golden Gate University at night, interning at a U.S. Attorney’s Office during the day.
Several years in small firms plus a couple in his own shop in San Francisco carried him through the 1970s. A “fairly significant” achievement, he said, was receiving an “av rating” from the Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review system. The “a” is for competence and the “v” is for very good or very highly rated overall, he explained. People in the law business take it very seriously, he said.
“I married a country girl (Stephanie) and we moved to Sacramento.” Knapp worked first as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and then deputy chief of the Civil Division, supervising 16 federal attorneys in the Sacramento and Fresno U.S. Attorney’s offices through the mid-1980s. The offices carried about 1,800 cases at any given time, he said, and the deputy chief had his own caseload of 100 or more. He litigated numerous medical malpractice cases, he recalled. One interesting case from those years involved “defending the feds and some El Dorado County law enforcement officers following a joint task force operation that went somewhat awry.”
“Did you win?”
“Of course. That’s why I’m telling you about it,” he chuckled.
The couple has lived in the same house on 3 acres in Camino for 35 years, and raised their two children who have grown up, finished college and moved on to other places. Having commuted to Sacramento for several years, Knapp said he eventually applied for and got the Chief Assistant County Counsel job in February 1993. Sam Neesham was County Counsel at the time. Knapp was appointed County Counsel after Lou Green retired in November 2012. Including his time as a federal prosecutor, he has been practicing law for 40 years.
Some of his most interesting local cases include working on the county’s team on the Rubicon Trail project, which he calls an “outstanding success story involving an off-highway vehicle trail.” Another is the county’s 10-year battle with the Shingle Springs Band of Miwoks over the Red Hawk Casino. Dealing with a “sovereign nation” in the middle of our county, he said, has been very interesting and rewarding, and after years of being at odds, he said there is now an excellent working relationship and “lasting peace.”
Knapp was also part of a case regarding local mining, opposing the State Department of Conservation. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, and ultimately the county prevailed, he said. About a dozen cases he’s been involved with have been “published,” which is a feather in any lawyer’s cap and a career highlight. To qualify, he said the case generally has to be “precedent-setting.” Another thing Knapp says he’s “proudest” of is the ongoing development and work of the County Counsel’s department.
“With 12 lawyers, we are the largest civil law practice in the county,” he said. “Why do people come here? Because they get to practice for the public good, and we’re involved at a high level on just about everything that goes on in the county. Our people are pretty dedicated,” he said.
Describing some of the wide variety of elements the County Counsel must be prepared to deal with, there are laws regarding jails, locked mental health facilities, public health departments, animal services, as well as child and adult protective services not to mention land use and environmental issues.
“You have to know a lot about a lot of stuff, and they’re all equally boring or equally interesting, depending on how you look at it,” he said, acknowledging that a lot of it is and always has been interesting to him.
Accepting the adage that “all politics is local,” Knapp notes that few issues in the county are not political. He cited the November ballot as an example. “There are a heck of a lot of initiatives,” and the politics involved make for times that are “pretty tumultuous.” The County Counsel’s office, however must be “scrupulously apolitical and has to play exceedingly straight.” He said his department is esteemed for being the place to go to “get reliable advice.”
Challenges for Robyn Truitt Drivon who succeeds Knapp next week?
More “tumultuous times” considering there will soon be three new supervisors on the board as Ron Briggs and Norma Santiago will “term out” in January. The three low-growth initiatives and another on the way, as well as what the future holds regarding the issue with former supervisor Ray Nutting will challenge and perhaps define “the art form of being a government lawyer.”
For his own immediate future, he and Stephanie will travel to Europe next month. On the way, Knapp will take the licensing test to become a “European Union Inland Boat Captain.” Not realizing he could take the test in English, in London, he has been studying for the test in French. The behind-the-wheel part of the exam calls for “driving a 60-foot barge on the Thames.” Not much of a problem he said, having piloted a 40-foot canal barge in France last year and been a sailor for most of his life.
Because his father traveled widely for his work, Knapp “went to high school in three different countries on two continents, New Hampshire, Toronto and London.” And he believes that travel provides great rewards. “You learn to adapt. It makes you flexible and open to experience.” Probably good training for practicing law regarding jails, locked mental health facilities, environmental issues and animal services.
Some County Counsel staff insisted that their nicknames for Ed Knapp be made public. “Big Ed” and “Fast Eddie” were mentioned as being particularly appropriate.