The city of Columbus has already spent close to half a million dollars defending itself in three lawsuits filed against the city by four local elected officials, City Attorney Clifton Fay revealed this week.
Sheriff John Darr, Clerk of Superior Court Linda Pierce, Marshal Greg Countryman and Clerk of Municipal Court Vivian Creighton-Bishop are suing the city because they say their budgets are not sufficient to cover all of their mandated duties.
Stone Mountain Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller, appointed to hear the case because of conflicts of interest with Muscogee Superior Court judges, is currently studying preliminary motions in the cases, including motions filed by the city asking him to dismiss the cases.
Fay presented the tally of attorney fees so far incurred by the city in the cases, which total $478,600. Broken down, the suit filed by Pierce has cost the city about $217,755. The suit filed by Darr has cost about $111,600 and the suit filed jointly by Countryman and Creighton-Bishop has cost a little over $149,000.
Pierce's total is higher than the others because some of the fees are holdovers from a similar and unsuccessful suit Pierce filed against the city last year, Fay said.
"The plaintiffs in this case have tried a combination of five different private law firms, and the city has had to engage three different law firms," Fay told councilors. "It's unfortunate that we've had to litigate these matters, but they're important and they are being watched state-wide.
"They are going to determine whether legislatures across the state set budgets or whether they can be overruled by elected officials who are demanding a certain amount of money."
Fay said if you divide the total by $250 per hour, the agree-upon rate for attorneys on both sides of the cases, it comes to about 2,000 hours that attorneys have devoted to the case so far.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said tactics employed by plaintiffs' lawyers have been designed to try to get the city to settle and have had the effect of running up legal fees for both sides.
Tomlinson said that when attorneys for Darr and Countryman invoked a conflict against the law firm of Page, Scrantom, it cost the city money to change firms and lose the considerable "homework" and case knowledge that firm already had. A new firm had to get up to speed in a short period of time, which ran up the bills, she said.
"The other thing is, when the elected officials first filed their lawsuits, they called for expedited treatment, emergency treatment," Tomlinson said. "So something that would normally take, a motion to dismiss, would normally take six to 10 months, had to be done in three or four weeks."
Tomlinson said that required lawyers to work nights and weekends to be prepared for the hearings.
William Stone, attorney for Pierce, said the city is at fault for the conflict of interest motion.
"If Page, Scrantom had a conflict of interest, they shouldn't have been representing the sheriff, should they?" Stone said. "I can't lay that on Sheriff Darr's doorstep, because they chose to have a lawyer who has a conflict of interest. They had to know it."
As for the amount of fees, Stone said he doesn't understand why the city would spend more money on attorney fees than it would have cost them just to give the officials what they were asking for in their suits.
"Originally the controversy with the clerk's (Pierce's) budget was about $60,000," Stone said. "And now the city has spent $217,000 on this lawsuit, just for the clerk alone. That's real good stewardship of public money."
Tomlinson said the city had no choice but to defend itself against the suits.
"We cannot afford not to defend these lawsuits," Tomlinson said. "If elected officers can basically set anything they want, it could feasibly bankrupt the city."
Stone said he did not know exactly what his legal fees have been so far, and he has no idea about other plaintiff attorneys. But he said it would be a "real safe assumption" that plaintiff legal fees would be somewhere close to what the defense has spent so far.
"This thing is going to be north of $2 million before it's all over with," Stone said.
Countryman said by email Wednesday night that "the citizens and Council should be just as outraged and should demand the Mayor stop this fiscal irresponsibility immediately.
"If she had followed the Charter and not engaged in a personal vendetta against the elected officials all of those attorneys' fees would still be available to serve the taxpayers," the Marshal said. "I have been criticized for rightfully spending $7,500 of my budget. Since then I have spent approximately $15,200 out of my own coffers and not my budget, even though the City previously ruled I could use my budget for these fees. "
Tomlinson again said the city had no choice but to defend itself.
"The elected official litigants have mentioned several times the amount we have spent in defending these lawsuits," Tomlinson said. "I would like point out at the outset, had we not been sued, we would have spent zero in defense costs. It's because we've been sued that we've incurred defense costs."