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News Features/Series

April 30, 2015 - City Legal Dept. ‘Status Report’ leads to 45 minute unplanned Executive Session

Category: News Features/Series

By Lou Phelps, Savannah Business Journal

April 30, 2015 – City Attorney Brooks Stillwell presented the long-awaited report on the expenses of the City of Savannah’s in-house Legal Dept. and an explanation of the outside law firms being used.

In total, Stillwell said that he spent or authorized almost $2.0 mil in 2014 by his department, which he said was 1.14% of the City’s total General Fund expenditures, and was “in line with other cities” the size of Savannah.

He also provided comparison data on the number of city attorneys employed by other U.S. cities, compared to their population. It was information he gathered last weekend at a national conference of City Attorneys.

Stillwell compared Savannah to cities with similar populations and circumstances – college town, high levels of tourism and dynamic business development – dynamics which create legal work.  Savannah has only two attorneys, himself and Asst. City Attorney Jennifer Herman, which was one of the lowest levels he could find.       

Of the actual $1,992,771 total he spent, $1,414,872 was spent on outside legal firms.  All other expenses, including his salary and that of Herman and two legal assistants, payroll taxes, and office overhead costs,  totaled $577,899 in 2014.

The largest extraordinary expenditure in 2014 was the Willie Lovett case, according to Stillwell, as well as excessive time spent on open records requests.

According to Stillwell, “one of the TV stations required its employees to file a FOI (Freedom of Information) request every week, just to look for things.”  The station he referred to was WSAV.  In an interview after the meeting, WSAV News Director Ken Brennon acknowledged that he had, in fact, been using that strategy to generate news, “to do our job” but had ceased the practice in early 2014.  A reporter interviewed said that the requirement was only ceased a few months ago.

WSAV has won a number of awards for investigative journalism.

Alderman Thomas said that the Open Records requests must be honored, and on a timely basis. “We owe it to the citizens,” but he questioned whether less expensive staff could assist with fulfilling requests from the public and the media. 

Stillwell said that Savannah really needs to have 4 to 6 attorneys on staff to have a sufficient in-house Legal Dept. to cut the heavy use of outside counsel, but that he was planning to ask for only one more attorney for the 2016 budget.  “He should be a litigator,” he responded, when asked what practice area specialty he would be seeking.  

Both Alderman Shabazz and Alderman Johnson, who was not in attendance but had questions posed for him by Mayor Jackson, said that they had questions about the gender and race of the employees of the Legal Dept.  After the meeting, Shabazz said that she thought the dept. “should reflect the makeup of the citizens of the city.”  

Johnson was in Philadelphia at a conference on violent African American males, according to the Mayor.   He also has questions about the amount of litigating that Stillwell is doing, personally.

In the City’s total legal budget presentation, Stillwell left out the approximately $1 million that the City spent in 2014 on the Batson Cook litigation case - $144,000 to former City Atty. Peter Giusti and $800,000 to the lead law firm on the case from Atlanta – because that case is “not being overseen by me.”  Stillwell is in a conflict of interest on the Batson Cook case because of his prior work at Hunter McLean where he was the Managing Partner before being named City Attorney.

Alderman Tom Bordeaux made the catch, and also asked a number of questions about outside firms being used, leading off questions by the Council after the presentation.  This made the 1.14% figure in error, said Bordeaux.   

Alderman Tony Thomas insisted on getting answers on the legal bills on the Batson Cook case, but Mayor Edna Jackson became emphatic that she would not discuss anything related to ‘ongoing litigation in public session.’  Thomas, therefore, made a motion to go into an unplanned executive session for purposes of litigation, which was supported, stating he had one question.  The unscheduled session lasted 45 minutes, and caused the Council to remove discussion on appointments to boards and commissions from their planned agenda until a later date.

Following the session, Thomas said he had “not gotten the answers he wanted,” in the executive session.

The City’s Current Legal Defense Strategy

According to Stillwell, when he was hired, “Council asked me not to make any changes in the outside lawyers.”  And, he has not, he explained.  He said he was also asked “to build a modern in house legal department.”  For 40 years, the city has outsourced all legal work to the firm of Atty. Jimmy Blackburn.

The following outside attorneys and firms were used in 2014: 

  • Bill Shearouse- Claims prior to litigation.
  • Lester Johnson- Property code and zoning code enforcement.
  • Malcolm Mackenzie- Personal injury and property damage.
  • Patty Paul- Employment and workers compensation.
  • Pat O’Connor- Police cases.
  • Shawn Kachmar- Lovett-related cases.
  • Jay Blackburn- Bankruptcy, tax liens and real estate cases.

Amounts paid to outside firms in 2014:

Weiner Shearouse            $  627,682

Oliver Maner                    $  495,855        

HunterMaclean                 $  128,564       

Lester Johnson                 $    80,585         

Wiseman Blackburn           $    57,876          

Thomerson, Macchiaverna  $    24,280          

Attorneys Johnson, Shearouse and Jay Blackburn are on retainers.  Other outside work is billed by the hour and case. 

Stillwell said that Asst. City Atty. Jennifer Herman handles oversight of all litigation, all administrative hearings and zoning cases against City. He did not indicate the type of cases he handles, personally.

He has also hired two legal assistants, Sheila Michael-Taylor and Lois Adams.

As to how he spends his time, Stillwell said that he and Herman, “spend most of our time supervising the litigation, the vast majority to be done by outside council.” But he also said that he spends “20% of his time on litigations, and that Jen spends 50% of her time.”  

Stillwell also outlined the large amount of his time that he said he spends advising” the City Manager, City Dept. heads, working with the Chamber of Commerce and working with real estate developers.     

Johnson was paid an additional $30,000 over his retainer in 2014 and was “underwater” according to Stillwell, with the number of cases that he needs to litigate for the city.  The majority of these are through the Recorder’s Court, and many involve neighborhood issues of property blight and code enforcement.  There appeared to be a consensus on the Council that Johnson is underpaid, and needs immediate help.

After the meeting, two Aldermen questioned Stillwell’s claims about the amount of litigating he is doing, and said they believe he needs to do more of the legal work himself.

He also explained that the City is trying to move cases through more quickly, versus in prior years. “That has a cost to it,” said Alderman Sprague, in her questions and comments.

He provided no information on the City’s legal expenditures in prior years.  Alderman Sprague asked that the Council receive this information as soon as possible.

Stillwell also reviewed some of the costs from the former Police Chief’s administration that ran up the City’s legal costs in 2014; there were 20 employment claims arising from alleged actions during former Chief Lovett’s tenure.  One is pending. 

Of the other cases related to Lovett: 

- 5 dismissed by EEOC and no suit filed

- 3 dismissed by plaintiffs

- 7 filed ante litem notices, no suits filed yet

- 2 complainants were indicted, one convicted, one pending

- 12 whistleblower cases were not pursued - time has run

- 1 case settled with Council approval.

He said the City has also won two judgments and received payments for frivolous lawsuits brought against Savannah.

The City also has a high level of workers comp cases which he included as the work of his department.  In 2014 there were:

- Outstanding claims (other than Workers compensation cases) as of January 1, 2014 -  81

- Liability claims and petitions filed in 2014 – 260

- Claims settled in 2014 (including prior year claims) - 111 

- Open claims carried forward to 2015 – 84

He did not provide information on the number of worker’s comp cases filed to date in 2015.

Overall Rating (1)

2.5 out of 5 stars

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    • Guest - Freda Rutherford

      Rated 2.5 out of 5 stars

      "Savannah has only two attorneys, himself and Asst. City Attorney Jennifer Herman, which was one of the lowest levels he could find. " She must be so proud.

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