By Jim Young
Crossville City Councilman Pete Souza brought up the possibility of the city hiring a full time attorney during last week’s special-called meeting and his motion to have the city manager collect some résumés for the council to look at passed with three council votes in favor.
Souza began his comments saying that he gets calls every week about why the city hasn’t taken care of issues with codes enforcement and he is told the city doesn’t have the money to hire an attorney for small issues.
“And there are a lot of small issues,” explained Souza, “and while I don’t think a full-time attorney will be any cheaper than what we have now, we’ll get more services for the amount of money we are spending now. In between the major issues, the city attorney could be handling these issues of a smaller nature.”
When asked, Souza said he thought the city could hire an attorney full time for $70,000 to $80,000 per year plus benefits. Benefits are estimated at 45 percent of salary and would add an additional $33,750 to that expense.
Other costs were discussed including the need for a secretary, legal library access, and other ongoing costs. In addition, office furniture and a computer would have to purchased.
Councilman George Marlow had discussed estimated costs with city staff prior to the called meeting and information released after the meeting showed there are 11 cities across Tennessee that report having a full time attorney. The smallest is Mt. Juliet with just over twice the population of Crossville. The smallest reported legal operating costs for a legal department is budgeted at an annual $136,000 for Bristol.
Crossville city staff put together a budget estimate for a full time attorney totaling over $150,000 to $173,000 using an annual salary of only $65,000 for an attorney. The 2012-13 city budget includes $76,000 for legal services between the general fund and the water and sewer department.
The motion by Souza was for the city manager to collect résumés that would be presented to the council at a work session in early May. Once those résumés are reviewed, the council may or may not decide to move forward with an offer of employment. Any employment offers would be subject to approval of a majority of the council. Souza’s motion was seconded by Councilman Jesse Kerley.
“There is 101 reasons that we shouldn’t do this but I think that there is more merit and more reasons that we should do this,” said Souza and he called for the question.
Souza and Kerley supported the motion and councilman Danny Wyatt also voted in favor, saying that it would not hurt anything for the manager to collect résumés. Mayor J.H. Graham III and Marlow opposed the motion.
Marlow commented before he voted “no” that he felt “the city was getting real good representation with what we have now.” Marlow added that the city shouldn’t be looking for the cheapest price, but for the best value. Another issue Marlow saw with the change was how it would affect ongoing litigation such as the Lake Tansi lawsuit. Marlow also pointed out that last month the council had voted to pay a specialized attorney twice the hourly rate of the current city attorney.
Following the vote, Kerley questioned the data that was provided to Marlow about other cities and pointed out that a previous council motion had been approved that all council members should be copied on information provided to one council member by city staff.
City Manager Bruce Wyatt explained that the staff had discussed the information and feared it could have been interpreted as trying to influence council members’ opinions. Further discussion of the issue led the city manager to say that not just councilman Marlow but also councilman Souza has been given information on topics that have not been passed along to other council members.
“We have erred I suppose,” said Bruce Wyatt, “but we certainly haven’t erred with any intention of hindering anyone’s access to information.” Wyatt added that all such information will be shared in the future.