East Ridge appoints interim city attorney in contentious meeting

Jim Bethune, former East Ridge councilman, questions the council's choice for interim city attorney.

The East Ridge City Council will bring on Mark Litchford as interim city attorney to replace resigning City Attorney Hal North, effective Jan. 1.

Before the council reached its decision in a special called meeting Thursday evening, members engaged in sometimes heated exchanges with audience members, including former council member Jim Bethune. Mayor Brent Lambert ultimately ordered a court officer to escort Bethune out of the meeting after several outbursts.

Bethune, fellow former council member Denny Manning and other citizens asked the council to consider using Alex McVeagh, who served as the city attorney during the meeting and works with the same law firm as North: Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel.

"My suggestion for Mark Litchford is because [of his employment by] Grant, Konvalinka and Harrison - that firm," Lambert said, crediting the firm's role in establishing the city as one of the state's border region districts five years ago, which provides state reimbursements for certain business incentives. Such incentives attracted Bass Pro Shops to East Ridge.

"I want to reconnect, in some measure, with the other law firm," Lambert said.

Lambert confirmed Grant, Konvalinka and Harrison also employed former city attorney John Anderson.

In December 2012, Lambert challenged Bethune and Manning in their vote to fire Anderson.

Several citizens accused council members of making up their minds before the meeting.

"The insinuation can be made there have been backroom discussions or whatever, [but] it has been no secret for a long time that I would rather have a different city attorney," Lambert said. "That's just the way it is."

Before his ejection, Bethune challenged Litchford's relationship with Anderson's firm.

"Everybody in this city knew that if the right two people got in [on the council], John Anderson's firm was coming back here," Bethune said. "You [Lambert] pretty much admitted that when you said you wanted to go back to the old way."

Councilwoman Esther Helton slammed Bethune's own ethics, alleging he broke open meeting laws during his tenure.

"Nobody wants you up here," Helton said.

Councilman Jacky Cagle cast the sole vote for McVeagh, while Lambert, Helton and Councilman Brian Williams voted for Litchford. Vice Mayor Larry Sewell was absent and traveling over the holiday, Lambert said.

Litchford will earn a monthly retainer of $8,000 and $175 per hour of litigation. North earned a flat $11,000 monthly salary, inclusive of litigation.

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or pleach@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.