Leader Blues

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

TOP STORY >> City attorney duties vary

By JOAN McCOY
Leader staff writer

Some officials in Jacksonville say it might be time for the city attorney’s position to become full time. But when it comes to city attorneys in Arkansas, part time and full time are just words that have only the weight the city councils decide to give them.

State law says first-class cities with mayor-council governments shall elect city attorneys every four years. But how much those attorneys are paid and their exact duties vary from city to city and appear to be based as much on tradition as law.

Buck Gibson, elected as the city attorney in Searcy in 2002, prepares ordinances and resolutions for the city council, prosecutes in district and circuit court and advises the mayor and council on legal matters.

He is considered a full-time city attorney, but Gibson says his $22,000 take-home pay for the job doesn’t begin to support him in the manner that people mistakenly believe lawyers are accustomed. His real income is from his private practice, he says.

In contrast, Robert Bamburg, Jacksonville’s part-time city attorney, is paid $64,432 for services similar to those Gibson provides. And like Gibson, Bamburg has a private practice.

Beebe City Attorney Mark Derrick is appointed by the city council because no lawyer from Beebe has filed to run for the job.

Derrick’s gross pay of almost $28,000 for his part-time job is about the same as Gibson’s full-time job and his duties are similar.

Derrick lives in Searcy and could lose his job in Beebe if a qualified lawyer decided to run for it.

In Lonoke, City Attorney Camille Bennett is elected to her position. She’s on a $2,000 annual retainer to attend council meetings and advise the mayor and council. But drafting ordinances is considered billable hours. And although most city attorneys are expected to prosecute cases in district court, Lonoke pays the county for that work.

Since the only thing clear about part time or full time is that the issue is clearly confusing, Cabot asked for a definitive answer from the attorney general’s office three years ago but came away empty-handed.

“It has long been the policy of the attorney general’s office to decline to construe the provisions of local ordinances,” Assistant Attorney General Joel DiPippa wrote in August 2006 for then Attorney General Mike Beebe.

The question arose in Cabot about four years after Keith Rhodes, that city’s last elected part-time city attorney, resigned late in 2001, saying the job required more time than he had to give.

At that time, the only ordinance on record describing duties was passed in 1982. It said the city attorney was to advise the mayor and council members whenever requested, provide legal advice and prepare legal opinions.

However, Rhodes was responsible for ordinances and resolutions, he advised the council, prosecuted in district court and handled some lawsuits for the city. When he left, the entire budget for his office was his $16,000 salary.

The job became full time with a $50,000 salary that same year when Jason Carter took over the job. Early in 2002, the city hired a legal assistant to work in the office and later that year the city hired a deputy city attorney to work as prosecutor in district court.

The ordinance making the job full time required the city attorney to maintain an office at city hall, to be present during regular business hours and to attend after-hour city functions. Those duties were in addition to the ones defined in the 1982 ordinance.

In 2005, Ken Williams, who succeeded Carter, resigned and the city council appointed Clint McGue, the longtime appointed Ward city attorney, to fill the position. McGue did not give up his position in Ward and worked out of his law office in Cabot, not city hall. His salary was $60,427.

Odis Waymack, who was on the city council at the time, voted against the appointment, saying the position was full time and that if McGue was going to fill it, he should at least be in the office at city hall during regular business hours.

But when the question was put to the attorney general, the answer, in essence, was that the city would have to interpret its own ordinances.

A further attempt in 2006 to firm up the city attorney’s duties died on the floor of the council chamber for lack of a second.

That proposed ordinance would have required the city attorney to prosecute in district court, approve all contracts and draft all ordinances and resolutions. But since it didn’t pass, the duties remain vague.

Jim Taylor, who filed for city attorney as a Republican and won easily over McGue in 2006, maintains an office at city hall and attends evening council, committee and commission meetings.

He doesn’t necessarily stay in the office during the day and his 2009 salary is $73,310. Also included in the budget for that office is $14,261 for the attorney who prosecutes in district court and $34,690 for the paralegal who runs the office and helps prepare ordinances and resolutions.