Will the city council change the city’s charter to ensure that it has its own attorney to represent the council?
That is the question the city council will have to consider if it wants to pursue the issue of having its own attorney, said Chris Melcher, city attorney.
Melcher said the city’s charter is clear in section “13-90 City Attorney Assistants.”
“The council may also, at any time, employ other counsel, to take charge of any litigation or to assist the Attorney, whose compensation shall be fixed by the Council at the time of employment,” the charter says.
Assist is the key word, Melcher said. The charter does not say the council is permitted to hire an outside attorney, he said.
“The city attorney is the city adviser,” he said, “and the only appointee permitted to give a legal opinion.”
During a recent monthly meeting between Mayor Steve Bach and the nine members of city council, voices raised and defenses were up between the mayor and city council president Keith King, who said the council is more than frustrated with the city attorney’s office.
King, along with the council, believes there is a conflict of interest when council asks for legal opinions, especially if the council and mayor are at odds. The issue of a separate, outside attorney for the city council was raised by the former council and it was among the first items the new council discussed at its get-to-know-you retreat in April.
Over the past two years, since the change to a “strong mayor” form of government, the council has repeatedly expressed concern, and sometimes anger, over the role of the city attorney. Council members have said the city attorney opinions often advocate for the mayor’s position and it takes weeks to get a response from the city attorney’s office.
“If we had access to an outside attorney, we would have a higher probability of getting answers to our questions,” said council member Val Snider.
A recent memo sent to the city council from the city attorney’s office about stormwater issues brought all the hard feelings about legal representation back to the surface.
King sent a variety of questions to the city attorney’s office that would answer legal questions related to stormwater issues on governance, fees and taxes. The reply memo didn’t answer the questions, King said. Instead, it listed all the reasons why a city-run stormwater program works in other cities, something the mayor endorsed in a recent press release. Most of the “freshman six” council members ran on a platform that supports a regional effort to solving the stormwater issues and are cool to a city-only program.
Interestingly, if the council seeks a legal opinon on whether it can hire an outside attorney, it will have to ask the city attorney.