East Ridge council studies legal bills

East Ridge council studies legal bills

June 14th, 2012 by Kate Belz in News

East Ridge City Attorney John Anderson

East Ridge City Attorney John Anderson

Photo by Laura-Chase McGehee

The money East Ridge has spent on its city attorney services is expected go nearly $20,000 over this year's budget, landing at a figure that is more than the legal fees of Red Bank, Soddy-Daisy, Collegedale and Signal Mountain - combined.

City Attorney John Anderson, who works part-time for East Ridge, is expected to bill the city between $134,000-$140,000 by the end of the year, according to City Manager Tim Gobble.

As East Ridge heads into the final vote of its city budget tonight, Anderson's fees are a line item several residents have raised eyebrows over.

"This is an area that is consistently over budget," resident Frances Pope said at the meeting. "I don't know why this is discussed in the background but never in public."

Mayor Brent Lambert said Anderson is "well worth the money."

"I know some folks have pointed to Red Bank and Soddy-Daisy in the past, but we're a bigger city, and somewhat more complex," Lambert said. "We have to pay for the very best, and that's what I believe we have."

Melissa Ashburn, a legal consultant with the Municipal Technical Advisory Service with the University of Tennessee, said the institute has not conducted an across-the-board study of city attorney rates.

"The range of services an attorney performs and bills for depends on what each city wants," she said. "Some do everything for a city, and some very little."

So how best to tell if an attorney's rates are fair or exorbitant?

"Frankly, officials need to call around to some other cities and ask what their attorney does, and what their attorney charges," Ashburn said.

Lambert gave Farragut, Tenn., and Shelbyville, Tenn., as two examples of similar-sized cities he's looked at. Farragut officials said Wednesday they anticipated spending between $130,000-$140,000 on their attorney this year.

Their attorney does not have a yearly retainer, or base rate for attending council meetings. Anderson's fee is $90,000. Anderson did not return calls for comment.

Shelbyville officials did not return requests for information Wednesday. Lambert said officials had told him they budgeted $112,000 for legal services.

Chattanooga's full-time City Attorney Mike McMahan makes a yearly salary of $107,880, records show. The city's entire legal department has six additional attorneys, and the department has budgeted $1.4 million for 2013.

Councilmen Denny Manning and Jim Bethune, who tried to fire Anderson for "out of line" fees in 2011, both declined to comment on the current figures, saying they weren't "in a position to discuss it at this point."

Gobble says there are several reasons why the city is over its legal budget.

Two lawsuits have been filed against the city this year, and three others are lingering in the litigation process. The city has also been looking into becoming involved in several real estate deals and development initiatives.

Dennis Huffer, a consultant with the Tennessee Municipal Attorney's Association, said there is no real standard set for how much city attorneys should be paid.

"It's pretty much what the attorney can get," he said. "If a city is willing to pay an exorbitant amount - they can."

Huffer said he couldn't comment as to whether Anderson's rate was "exorbitant," but he did say it was enough for the city to consider in-house legal services.

"They could easily hire a full-time city attorney for less than what they're paying, plus benefits," Huffer said.

Brentwood, Tenn., which has a population of 37,000 - about 16,000 more than East Ridge - has a full-time city attorney with no support staff. He is paid $126,000 annually.

But Lambert said he doesn't think a full-time attorney is necessarily cheaper since experienced attorneys will typically ask for high salaries and a support staff.

Last year, council abruptly voted 3-2 to extend Anderson's contract to 2015. Anderson's contract also includes a severance package equal to $22,500.

Gobble said Anderson's fees are "in the ballpark" with the city's previous legal representation.

Chris Helton, East Ridge's part-time attorney from 1997 to 2007, had a $60,000 retainer and litigation fees, plus full health insurance benefits.

For a seven-month period, the city paid the Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel law firm about $111,000 for legal services in 2008.