A year ago, even eight months ago, Martha Welsh wouldn’t have believed that today she would be Macon city attorney.
When City Attorney Pope Langstaff retired in April after 13 years, Welsh was comfortable in her longtime position as senior assistant attorney, and she planned to stay there.
“When I sat in the mayor’s office and he asked me to be interim city attorney, I told him ‘You better hire a permanent one, quickly,’’’ Welsh said.
Another assistant city attorney, Katherine Kalish, had retired in January, and her job was eliminated. Legal assistant Carole Portwood was to retire in June. Then Assistant City Attorney Beth Duncan left in July.
That left Welsh alone with one other veteran assistant city attorney, Tena Helms, and legal secretary Jackie Tingle, to handle a mounting backlog of work.
Welsh feared things wouldn’t get better -- that she wouldn’t be able to change how the office worked, in order to handle the load of contacts, legislation and other legal issues faster and more efficiently.
“Some have often fondly referred to our office as ‘the black hole,’’’ Welsh said. “I wanted to address that perception.”
The city attorney’s office works for both the mayor and City Council on legal issues, and it has been criticized for moving too slowly; but perhaps the biggest bottleneck, Welsh found, was that over the years many duties far removed from legal work had been piled onto her staff. She wanted to focus on the core functions of a lawyer’s office.
One big time-eater was collecting bills owed to the city, which kept the legal assistant occupied. The attorney’s office also reviewed all financial claims submitted against the city, which rarely required a lawyer’s involvement, Welsh said.
With some surprise, she found that the administration and other offices were both cooperative and supportive in taking over those functions. Collections moved to the Finance Department, while claims went to the risk management office, which already handled some of them.
That’s freed new legal assistant Denise Kelley to do paralegal work, Welsh said.
The support she got from former Chief Administrative Officer Thomas Thomas and his interim successor, Finance Director Dale Walker, helped convince Welsh that she would be able to make the changes she wanted, she said.
She was still reluctant even as she filled out the application for the permanent job but has no regrets after her August confirmation.
“The person that had to convince me to want this job was me,” Welsh said. “Sometimes, I guess we don’t know what we’re capable of until we’re placed in that position.”
It’s still stressful, dealing with constant interruptions and an ever-changing variety of legal topics. Welsh spoke with Langstaff shortly after his retirement and told him he could still come back, but now she wants to keep the job despite its scope, she said.
Welsh said she has spent almost her entire career in some form of public service. While attending the University of Massachusetts, she interned in the state House; later she worked for the Peace Corps, U.S. Information Agency and the private development charity Africare, she said.
She had one brief stint with a private firm before getting her law degree from the University of Georgia in 1993, but then became assistant district attorney in Dublin.
“I came here in 1994 as an assistant city attorney,” Welsh said.
Langstaff, now with local law firm Chambless Higdon Richardson Katz & Griggs, said Welsh spent years as compliance officer, handling discrimination claims. Eventually, she became senior assistant city attorney.
“She’s got great experience,” Langstaff said. Welsh’s organization, attention to detail, and her speaking and writing ability should serve her well in handling the “flood of stuff” the city attorney handles, he said.
“She was a joy to work with. I think she’ll do great in that job,” Langstaff said.
One big task was filling the half-empty office. Assistant City Attorney Stuart Morelli was hired in late August, and Senior Assistant Attorney Judd Drake arrived in October.
“By the fall, I had filled all the budgeted positions,” Welsh said. “I have enjoyed being able to assemble my own team, and they are a great group to work with.”
Drake, from Metter in Candler County, handles legal issues for a couple of council committees, the city pension funds and three departments. He also serves as compliance officer, he said.
A Mercer University law graduate, he worked as Candler County attorney for years, served as a Magistrate Court judge and was elected to State Court there, Drake said. Then he went to Emory University for a divinity degree and became a Methodist pastor in a county near Macon, he said.
“The ministry was a difficult adjustment for my family, so I decided to resume the practice of law,” Drake said.
He applied for the senior assistant city attorney’s job and arrived just as Welsh was making several changes, he said.
Drake said he likes the degree of collaboration and communication she’s brought to the office.
“I think those are all positive things,” he said. “I would say that I’ve been very impressed with Martha’s leadership.”
Two related changes Welsh instituted are weekly staff meetings -- including Friday lunches to promote a family-like atmosphere -- and as much delegation as possible.
But to delegate tasks, she had to know what work everyone was handling. One of her first tasks was creation of an Excel list of all projects that can’t be done in less than a day.
“You cannot manage the workload if you don’t know what the workload is,” Welsh said.
There are now 130 items on the list, which is regularly updated, reviewed and prioritized, she said.
Morelli said changes like that have made the office run more smoothly and efficiently.
“Now that we’re fully staffed, I think we’re trying to clear up some of the backlog that popped up over the last couple months,” he said.
Morelli, who grew up in Gwinnett County, went to law school at the University of Georgia. He was assistant city attorney in Brunswick for less than a year, while his wife clerked for a federal judge in nearby Savannah, he said. Then came four years of private practice in Jonesboro, until he saw the job opening in Macon.
“Feels nice to be back in public service, more directly than I was at the firm,” Morelli said.
He handles the work for a couple of City Council committees, police and fire departments, and a few other city offices, he said.
Welsh’s assembly of a strong legal team and willingness to delegate have sped up operations, said Walker, who meets with her regularly.
“She, in my opinion, is doing a tremendous job with a complex area,” he said.
Welsh said she regularly confers with council leaders on upcoming issues, and she thinks they’ve built a good rapport. Soon after she took the job, she met with Councilman Rick Hutto about his concerns, the office workload and her proposed changes.
“I particularly appreciate the way she brought me in to discuss her ideas and plans for the office, and I know she is sincere in trying to reform some of the systemic problems there,” said Hutto, who’s also an attorney.
He’s always objected to Macon having more attorneys on staff than larger Georgia cities, and despite the changes, insinuations linger that some council members get their proposed legislation through the attorney’s office faster than others, he said.
“Having said all that, things there are better even if not perfect,” Hutto said.
Welsh said she knows there have long been questions about how long it takes to review legislation, but she said some proposals are much simpler to research and write than others. One additional way to speed up things is a database she’s building of frequently researched issues so attorneys don’t “reinvent the wheel” each time, she said.
And there are other ideas she’s developing for further efficiency, though she hasn’t announced them yet, Welsh said.
“Suffice it to say, my work is not done,” she said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.