Saturday, August 6, 2016

How many City Attorneys does it take to change a light bulb?

Probably one.  For everything else, a staff of seven.

And a $1M budget.

By Roger McCredie

In 2005, Asheville had a population of just over 73,000. In 2016 the population is reckoned at just under 83,400, representing an increase of 14.2 per cent.

And over the same 11 years the city attorney’s office has grown from five employees to a full-time staff of seven, an increase of 35.7 per cent.

The total 2005 budget for the city’s legal department, including its five-employee payroll, was $569,567. Its projected 2016-2017 budget, including its seven-person staff’s compensation, is $982,182, a 47 per cent increase over 2005.

In the not-all-that-distant past, the City Attorney was a lawyer in private practice who was simply paid a retainer by the city to offer legal opinions, and handle or supervise such matters requiring an attorney’s services, as might from time to time be necessary.

These days the city’s in-house legal team occupies spacious digs on the second floor of City Hall. Five of its seven employees are attorneys who work for the city full-time and two of those five – four if you include the city’s comprehensive benefit packages – are paid more than $100,000 dollars a year. In fact, head City Attorney Robin Currin’s annual compensation, including benefits, comes to more than twice that.

Asheville Unreported obtained comparison figures for city attorneys in several cities of comparable size to Asheville statewide and found that Currin is the highest paid city attorney among those municipalities examined. Currin’s annual base salary of $177,700 outstrips those of Fayetteville ($165,185.20), Wilmington ($158,331), Gastonia ($139,502) and Hickory ($102,192).

The actual breakdown of the city’s legal staff’s compensation is shown below. The left hand column shows base salaries; the figures at right are estimated total compensation values obtained by taking the total department fringe benefits amount budgeted ($176,213), dividing it by seven ($25,173) and adding it to each base salary figure to obtain an estimated package amount:

AttorneyBase SalaryEstimated w/ Benefits
Robin Currin, City Attorney$177,700$202,873
Jannice Ashley$  83,648$108,821
Kelly Whitlock, Deputy CA$102,489$127,662*
John Maddux$  78,575$103,748
Catherine Hoffman$  67,611$  92,874
Charlotte Hutchison (Researcher)$  60,189$  85,362
Sarah Terwilliger (Exec. Asst.)$  34,164$  59,340

*According to the city budget, “The Deputy City Attorney position is not covered by the Civil Service Law. The vacancy [since filled] was created by the retirement of the incumbent in the position.

In addition to staff compensation, the legal department’s budget has allocated $176,213 for “operating expenses.” In the budget document, that figure is accompanied by a footnote that reads:

“Contracted funding with an outside legal firm for representation at the North Carolina General Assembly was moved from the non-departmental section of the budget to the City Attorney budget after adoption of the FY 2015-2016 and is reflected in the 2016-2017 budget under operating cost.”

There is no further breakdown of the department’s “operating costs” category, nor any elaboration as to what “representation at the North Carolina General Assembly” by an outside law firm includes. There is also no allusion to fees for outside legal preparation and appearance on the city’s behalf in the upcoming State Supreme Court appeal hearing on the city’s lawsuit against the General Assembly over the Asheville Water System. Presumably those monies are included in the city’s $46.3 million “operating costs” category.

The city’s taxpayer-funded litigation in that case has already cost about $700,000 and the Supreme Court hearing is expected to push that figure well past a million dollars. (Some observers say that taking the water case to the high court level is a costly exercise in futility. Others think Asheville has no choice but to give a Supreme Court appeal its best shot, if only for the sake of being able to say it has exhausted all its possibilities. The court heard oral arguments in May and is expected to rule in November.)

The present city attorney is Robin Currin, who assumed the position in May of 2014. She was recruited from the Raleigh firm of Currin & Currin, which she co-founded with her husband. Prior to forming that partnership, she was a partner at Poyner & Spruill, where, according to her bio, she was “recognized as one of the state’s top zoning/land use attorneys.” Her legal background is remarkably similar to that of Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, an attorney with the Van Winkle Law Firm. Manheimer’s areas of concentration is commercial litigation, especially with regard to creditors’ rights, land disputes and foreclosures.

An early eyebrow-raiser in Currin’s tenure was her ruling about a possible conflict of interest in the city’s Eagle/Market Street Project which touched both a sitting member of City Council and Currin’s predecessor, Martha Walker-McGlohon, who served as interim city attorney from July of 2013 until Currin’s appointment.

In October, 2013, work on the 90,000-square-foot, multi-use Eagle/Market Street building ceased abruptly when massive cracks appeared in a second-story concrete floor slab only days after the concrete had been poured. The damage was laid at the feet of the project supervisor, Chris Bauer, who is the brother-in-law of Councilman Gordon Smith. When the family connection between Bauer and Smith – who had voted for Bauer’s appointment – became public knowledge, McGlohon was asked for her opinion. She replied that there had been no conflict of interest in Smith’s promoting Bauer.

It later developed that the estate of McGlohon’s late husband, Howard, was a partner in Eagle Market Street Development Company, the owner of the property.

So, given that state-level representation and super-important stuff are contracted out to commercial law firms, what do the denizens of the second floor at city hall do all day?
According to the city’s website, the city attorney’s staff members, perform the following functions:
  • Implement city goals and objectives through appropriate legal processes.
  • Assist in the development and presentation of legislative programs.
  • Initiate or defend legal action as necessary in support of city goals and objectives.
  • Provide research and advice to City Council in support of Council initiatives.
  • Provide continued high quality legal service to internal as well as external customers.
  • Provide or arrange for effective legal representation for all lawsuits.
And how does that translate into a million-dollar operating budget?

“It’s the managerial style,” said one former city employee who spoke on condition of anonymity. “For one thing, the city manager’s office refers every little thing over to the city attorney’s office. I’m sure there’s enough paper shuffling to keep them occupied.”
As for light bulb changing, it is not mentioned among staffers’ job descriptions.

RogerMROGER McCREDIE is a well-known Asheville-based journalist. His investigative reporting for the Asheville Tribune on such topics as New Belgium Beer, the "Bruingate" bear hunting sting and the city's takeover of Pack Place earned national attention.  His feature writing appears regularly in Capital at Play magazine and he contributes to several blogs including the recently launched "Tavern Voices."

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