What will it cost the city to hire an attorney for the Board of Ethics? Has city business been put on hold due to distractions caused by the ethics case? Will legal fees be monitored to ensure the city is not fleeced? Is there a conflict of interest with the recommended attorney? Why can’t the city’s attorneys represent the board?
Council posed these questions before approving the resolution to hire Richard Carothers, attorney for several small cities in Gwinnett County, to represent the Board of Ethics in the complaint against Councilor Adrian Bonser for an alleged leak of their executive session. Attorneys with Riley McLendon, the law firm that represents Dunwoody, recommended Carothers to the board and to council. The resolution passed with a vote of 6-1.
Councilor John Heneghan asked Cecil McLendon, assistant city attorney, if it was absolutely necessary to hire outside legal counsel due to possible conflicts of interest.
McLendon said it was important that the city avoid even the appearance of impropriety and that he thinks it is appropriate to hire outside counsel to represent the board when the participants in an ethics case are members of council.
McLendon also told council that the members of the board are serving as judges and that it is not intuitive to serve as a judge.
“I think it is very important that if you have a citizen board that you have someone with experience who can give them guidance,” said McLendon. “This is not for one side or the other; this is for the process and the integrity of the process.”
Heneghan said that while he understood the need to follow the city’s process, he was disheartened at the money wasted on the process and disappointed that the subject has distracted the city from actually doing the people’s work.
Citing work that he has done to get a crosswalk installed on Tilly Mill Road near Stonington Road, Heneghan said that the project has been put on the back burner because of the need for an intergovernmental agreement between the cities of Doraville and Dunwoody that needs to be drafted by the city’s legal team.
Councilor Terry Nall asked City Manager Warren Hutmacher if he was aware of any evidence that the IGA for the crosswalk had been delayed due to insufficient legal staff.
“Not directly, no,” said Hutmacher.
Heneghan said that he hoped the city could move in the direction of again doing the people’s business without distraction after the passage of the resolution for outside counsel.
“The city of Dunwoody was not created to line the pockets of attorneys,” said Heneghan, “and though I believe your firm could handle the technicalities of this case, I also respect the legal advice enough to follow it.”
Councilor Lynn Deutsch said that she wanted to make sure that the city has processes in place to ensure the billing is appropriate and that the city doesn’t get overcharged.
McLendon, while not detailing any specific process, said that the bills would be reviewed and that if anything was out of line that he would deal with the issue swiftly.
Nall supported the choice of Carothers for the board.
“In my research I find that this attorney, Mr. Mayor, is appropriate, very well skilled in this and I think would be an excellent choice for the ethics board,” said Nall.
Councilor Denny Shortal said that he shared Deutsch’s concern about cost and said that nobody on council was more fiscally responsible than he.
“Cost is a factor, but you can do the easy thing or you can do the right thing,” said Shortal. “It’s going to cost us some money. Do I like to spend it, nope!”
Councilor Doug Thompson asked McLendon if he thought that Carothers had a conflict of interest that would preclude him from representing the board.
McLendon said “I do not.”
Mayor Mike Davis asked McLendon if the city would have been charged separately by Riley McLendon if the city had chosen their firm to represent the board.
After consulting with Leonid Felgin, assistant city attorney, McLendon said that he believed that hearings such as this are handled outside the retainer.
“They are handled on a litigation charge,” said Felgin, which equates to $150 per hour, the rate that the city will pay Carothers.
Bonser objected to the appointment of Richard Carothers and said that hiring Carothers would be a conflict of interest.
“Mr. Carothers has already been influenced,” said Bonser. “He had an interview with the city manager. The city manager is facing ethics charges. We need to allow this ethics board to select and vet their own attorney.”
Bonser asked for an amendment to the resolution to remove Carothers’ name and to simply state that the city attorneys have recommended outside counsel for the board. The requested amendment failed when there was not a second from any other council member. Bonser cast the sole vote against the resolution.
Before the vote, Frank Lockridge, citizen, gave public comment on the leak investigation and the decision to hire an attorney.
Lockridge said that he didn’t want to have to come before council on what he called the secret meeting fiasco, but felt compelled to voice his opinion after reading Bob Lundsten’s recent blog.
“I do wonder about Warren Hutmacher’s status since he was identified as the source at a recent council meeting in front of some 100 attendees by the editor of The Crier,” said Lockridge. “Certainly he should be held to the same level of confidentiality as the other attendees of the secret meeting.”
Lockridge said that it was total nonsense for the ethics board and Bonser to request the city to retain a lawyer on their behalf.
“Based on what I’ve heard both Councilwoman Bonser and Warren Hutmacher spoke to others and should receive a reprimand,” said Lockridge. “Councilwoman Bonser has been a very good advocate for the people in her district and we appreciate and value her representation of our concerns and welfare.”
“ I expected much better stewardship of the city’s funds, better use of human resource skills on the part of the mayor, and certainly knowing better than speaking to the local newspaper editor regarding confidential matters,” said Lockridge. “Please do not hire another attorney”
Almost lost in the ethics brouhaha, was council’s vote to approve a proposed millage rate of 2.74 for 2012, the same rate that was in place at the city’s incorporation four years earlier.
Shortal said that Dunwoody has the lowest tax rate of any city in DeKalb or Fulton County. What’s more, said Shortal, the city has increased services since incorporation.
Nall said that it is fiscally prudent and responsible for the city to live within its means and to maintain the millage rate at the current rate of 2.74 mils despite a very sharp drop in the tax digest since incorporation.
“We’re very blessed to have a diversified revenue stream and a staff that’s committed to making the necessary adjustments that enable us to keep our taxes low,” said Nall.