Macon council resolution aims to ditch city attorney’s office

A group of City Council members wants to look at outsourcing Macon’s legal work, effectively downsizing or getting rid of the city attorney’s office.

Three Ward I council members — Rick Hutto, Elaine Lucas and Lonnie Miley — along with Ward V Councilman Erick Erickson, have penned a resolution asking Mayor Robert Reichert to solicit bids from private attorneys interested in representing the city.

The effort comes as officials are trying to put together a budget for next year in a hostile economic environment, where they say all options should be placed on the table.

But the movement may also be based in personal dissatisfaction.

Hutto and Lucas in particular have had past confrontations with attorneys or complained about the efficiency and quality of work coming out of the office.

Hutto said the office is “a sacred cow” that city leaders are afraid or unwilling to more closely examine.

City Attorney Pope Langstaff said the councilman just seems “angry.”

Regardless of the reasons behind it, the resolution hasn’t yet gotten very far. The council’s Ordinances and Resolutions Committee at its last meeting declined to put the matter on its agenda for referral to committee. Councilman James Timley, the president pro-tem and Ordinances and Resolutions chairman, broke a tie vote to block the item. He said he wanted to make sure consideration of the resolution didn’t turn into a “personal vendetta.”

But Timley has asked Hutto to gather data and present it when the Ordinances and Resolutions Committee next meets. If privatization can be shown to save money, Timley said he would support it.

“If it merits it, we’ll send out the requests for proposals,” he said.

Hutto said he has been partly inspired by Warner Robins, where the city’s former in-house attorney resigned his position in December and now represents the city on a contractual basis. Hutto points also to Savannah, a larger city that he said incurs smaller costs by outsourcing some legal work, and Bibb County, which contracts with a private law firm.

“We have to look at all of the possibilities,” Hutto said. Although he said Langstaff “happens to be a favorite of some people, ... I’m not after him. If this were any other department, I’d say exactly the same thing.”

Many smaller cities in Georgia retain private attorneys, according to the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, but nearly all of the large ones have in-house legal counsel. By comparison, the institute notes that Albany employs three attorneys, Athens-Clarke County four attorneys and Roswell two attorneys, plus related support staff. Populations in Albany and Roswell are slightly smaller than Macon. The consolidated Athens-Clarke County is larger.

Macon is planning to spend $755,918 on the city attorney’s office next year, up about $2,000 from what was budgeted this year. The vast majority of those costs are related to personnel — salaries and benefits for the city attorney, four assistant city attorneys, two legal secretaries, a legal assistant, risk manager and risk management assistant.

But the total budgeted expense is misleading, Langstaff said. Risk management is not commonly a legal function, and the two related positions were once part of the Finance and Human Resources departments before they and their related costs were moved to the city attorney’s office several years ago.

Also, one of the assistant city attorneys works primarily as Macon’s compliance officer, a position mandated by federal court that was moved into the attorney’s office so that reports could be protected under the attorney-client privilege. When salary and benefits for those three positions are subtracted from the office, the city attorney’s budget falls to $568,815, according to Langstaff.

Meanwhile, Savannah budgeted $533,931 for its legal work in 2009, which included a city attorney, assistant city attorney, a paralegal and outside counsel. That city’s six-person risk management operation is budgeted in a separate department for nearly $430,000.

In Bibb County, the commission expects to spend $455,000 in 2010 in legal costs. Rather than employ an in-house attorney, it retains the services of local lawyer Virgil Adams for $150 per hour. Bibb also separates its risk management function, on which it plans to spend $293,635 in fiscal 2010.

Langstaff said Macon’s unique structure makes it difficult to compare the true cost of legal functions to other governments or the private sector. With both a strong mayor and strong council of 15 members, the city has the largest apparatus of elected officials outside of Atlanta. That creates a large volume of legal questions, due to the quantity of elected leaders, the number of meetings held and the balance-of-power issues that are raised, Langstaff said.

Legal work also is generated by functions that are not necessarily active in other local governments — such as a commercial airport, coliseum and convention center, community development department or parks and recreation, Langstaff said.

And he said his office spends most of its time responding to calls and requests from elected officials and department heads that would be much more costly were he an attorney paid by the hour. Langstaff, one of the city’s highest paid employees, makes about $105,000 per year. That’s the equivalent of about $50 per hour.

In the end, outsourcing legal work would mean decreased levels of service from what city officials are accustomed to, Langstaff said.

“We know how the city works and the laws that govern the city. That’s our area of expertise,” he said. “It’s not really like working anywhere else. ... Whatever legal services the city needs, we do.”

To contact writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251.