Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press East Ridge City Attorney John Anderson responds to questions asked by City Councilman Jim Bethune at a special called meeting Monday night at East Ridge City Hall. Anderson would not respond when asked if he would work for $90,000 a year.
East Ridge Councilmen Jim Bethune and Denny Manning took long strides together Monday evening, entering City Hall like men on a mission.
But for now, their mission—firing City Attorney John Anderson—hangs in the balance thanks to newly appointed Councilman Darwin Branam, who missed a vote as he visited a second residence in Florida.
“I don’t think the situation required an emergency meeting,” Branam said. “That’s why I went out of town.”
In January, Branam told the Chattanooga Times Free Press his time in Florida would not impede his council duties.
Meanwhile, his colleagues deadlocked 2-2, with Mayor Brent Lambert and Vice Mayor Larry Sewell voting against Bethune’s motion to fire Anderson for fees that are “out of line.”
But the vote wasn’t as clear-cut as the tie would indicate. As part of $427,726 in the last 34 months, Anderson has collected more than $90,383 in the first six months of the current fiscal year — $383 more than East Ridge budgeted for the entire cycle, which ends June 30.
Bethune offered to withdraw his motion if Anderson agreed to stop taking fees for the rest of the fiscal year.
“If Mr. Anderson will truly accept $90,000 per year ... I have no problem keeping Mr. Anderson at all,” Bethune said.
In the course of a 26-minute meeting, Anderson never addressed Bethune’s proposal. He declined to comment when a reporter asked about it.
“I didn’t do anything I wasn’t asked to do,” Anderson said, referring to his East Ridge-related duties.
Monday wasn’t the first time local officials have scrutinized Anderson’s invoices. The Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority terminated the attorney’s contract after he charged nearly $120,000 over a 14-month period on bills that included dining, attending routine meetings and reviewing newspaper articles, records show.
While Anderson has billed East Ridge for similar expenses—parking, phone calls, postage and meals among them—councilmen have complied with his rates since they hired the attorney in 2008.
“How is this Mr. Anderson’s fault?” Lambert asked. “Why are we seeking to terminate him?”
Officials argued over the exact amount Anderson billed the city during fiscal year 2009-10, which began in July 2009 and ended last June. Bethune said invoices showed $185,441, while Lambert said the cost actually was $132,000.
“I think what happened in [2009-10] is that they paid about $40,000-something that was really for the year before,” Interim City Manager Eddie Phillips said in an e-mail.
Bethune distributed records that showed a $49,000 payment in the first month—July 2009—of the fiscal year in question.
Anderson, a Signal Mountain resident who acquired East Ridge property four months before last November’s municipal elections, would not leave his post without a severance package.
East Ridge would owe the attorney $22,500—three times his monthly retainer—and aside from “hiring a new attorney,” neither Bethune nor Manning offered a plan of succession Monday night.
“A new attorney’s not going to be up on what’s going on,” Sewell said.
The council will revisit Anderson’s contract on March 10.