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City Council, July 15

Sympathy, but no support for Council member’s request to hire independent counsel
A worthwhile confrontation in our opinion
Marc Knapp

City Council meets only once a month over the summer period. It normally meets twice a month and in the past, the reduction of the frequency has been offset by the length of meetings. We can remember in past years where some meetings in summer have extended to about 10 pm. This is long haul for a meeting beginning with Ways Means at 4.30 pm. Whether its the weaker economy and a diminution in commercial and housing projects needing approval, or just an aberration, yesterdays meeting was no longer than normal. There were no speakers during Public Participation which promoted the Mayor to joke that the public was mindful of the desire to get home to view a major sport event. Indeed, excluding those who turned up to participate in the award ceremonies, the public attendance was probably less than 10.

Differences with Mayor prompt Council member’s request
The highlight of the evening was discussion of the ordinance proposed by Council member Mallard. He asked Council to approve the spending of $30,000 a year to hire a lawyer to exclusively represent members of City Council. His request was prompted by the large differences between the majority of Council and the Mayor that began with the request by Council to be involved in the hiring of a new Fire Chief. The Mayor agreed to allow Council members to meet with the final candidates but adamantly maintained that the final decision was his and not Council's. A meeting of the Public Safety Committee was also declared illegal by the Mayor and City legal staff, even though the State Attorney General said it was not.

The problem is that the lawyers are hired and fired by the Mayor. If the Mayor tells them to do something, they will do it even if it is questionable. We suspect City Counsel feel that Council members are not smart enough to know any better. Up until the Sofa Super Store fire, the majority of Council members were little more than puppets whose strings were held by the Mayor. Now they are figuring out how manipulated they have been and how loyal the legal staff are to the Mayor.

Council Mallard’s proposal did not make it. It was rejected by all of the other Council members. However, the vote should not be taken on face value. Certainly, there were some Council members who were openly hostile to the request and in the case of Council member Morinelli, indignation that such a request was made. Some, like Council members Wilson and Evans thought that it impugned the integrity of the City Legal staff. (In our view, the legal staff has lost a lot of credibility after the confrontation with Councilmember Gallant.) The Council members also thought it was a waste of money even though Council Member Mallard showed it ws only a small amout relative to the legal department's budget of over $1 million a year.

Some sympathy of the request
Some Council members sympathized with Council member Mallard’s request. But they thought that the issues that had caused the rift between the Mayor and Council could be healed without going to the extreme. A discussion of the issue was in itself a good thing. The fact that Council member Alexander seconded the motion but voted against it was testimony to his belief that the issue needed airing.

Council member Mallard introduced his proposal with a forceful speech noting past differences between Council and the Mayor. He said the coup de grace was the differences over the meeting of the Public Safety Committee. The Mayor and legal staff deemed this to be illegal, but it wasn’t, (according to opinion from the State Attorney General’s Office). Later in the meeting, the Council member said the single important thing that prompted his request was City Deputy Counsel Andrew's statement to him that “she worked for the Mayor”. Earlier he said that if Council had access to it’s own legal advice, there would be no potential clash of interests by the legal staff. The clash over the legality of the calling of the Public safety Committee was a prime example of a conflict of interest and could be subject to a complaint to the State Bar and subsequent sanctions.

Legal staff defend integrity
City legal staff also spoke of the issue and as Council member Alexander had indicated earlier, the City ordinance required the legal staff to serve the “Mayor, City Council and Department heads”. Staff said it was not a question of loyalty. Even if they did not support a request, they would still work on it and give a truthful opinion. Many Council members and the Mayor spoke of the integrity of the legal staff. The Mayor noted that he had little to do with many ordinances brought before Council. He noted that originally, he was not in favor of the Smoking Ordinance but did nothing to hinder past Council members Fishburne and Tinkler in working with legal staff in its drafting.

Council member Lewis trod heavily on Corporation Counsel de Saussure’s toes when he reminded the attorney of the opinion he expressed that the City would not be able to adopt an anti-loitering ordinance. Yet the City ultimately did that. He implied that it the Council had outside advice, it may have been able to act faster. Mr de Saussure gracefully yielded.

Work for all but report to Mayor
Deputy Counsel Andrews also acknowledged her discussion with Council member Mallard. In the conversation she also said that she worked for the Mayor and Council. But she worked for the Mayor in the sense that this was the person to whom she reported. As Council member White also said, the Mayor has the responsibility of managing the Legal Department, assess performance and to hire and fire.

Proposal was not a waste of effort
We did not expect Council Member Mallard to succeed in obtaining approval for his ordinance. But the effort was not a waste of effort. Council is better educated for the experience and has shown the Mayor that it will not lie down in the face of controversy. The Mayor has always been respectful of Council members in public. His manner at last night’s meeting suggested a stronger attempt to work amicably with Council.

We also note that there seems a difference in opinion as to whether the Attorney General (AG) supported Council in relation to the alleged illegal meeting of the Safety Committee. The Post and Courier said the AG did not support the legality, Council member Mall4rar said it did.

Ordinance to reduce discretionary spending limits of Mayor withdrawn
The other ordinance proposed by Council member Mallard was withdrawn before any discussion was held. The ordinance would have reduced the limit of spending by the Mayor and CFO without the need for Council approval. Presently the limit is $40,000 per item. The Council member wanted this reduced to $20,000. He made little comment except to say that in these tight financial times more scrutiny was desirable. He deferred to Council member Shirley who had discussed the issue with the Council member. Council member Shirley gave a history of the change to spending limits, and noted the decision of Council earlier this year to raise the limit to $40,000. He reminded Council that it could still review all of the spending that did not come before it for approval. And staff indicated that they would supply Council members with a list of these items on a quarterly basis.

City asks FEMA for $2.53 million for Fire Department funding
One item that got our attention last night was an application to FEMA for a grant of $2.53 million. – staffing for adequate fire and emergency response. The monies would cover a 5 year period and the City match was $3.11 million. The Mayor noted that if the grant were not approved, the City would have to meet the full cost of increasing manning levels for the Fire Department.

We perused the document relating to the submission – it is 22 pages of fine print. The City is asking for help to finance the expansion of the Fire Department personnel complement and assist in training. The Department’s ability to meet all standards of NFPA 1710 before 2010 – specifically 4 persons in each company - is limited, the submission says. The City also states that compliance will require the use if overtime. The City also says that it could be vulnerable to personnel turnover.

As a City tax payer, needless to say we hope the FEMA grant is approved