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City gets bill for $72,000 more in lawsuit legal fees

MIKE OWEN

mowen@ledger-enquirer.com

The city of Columbus will ask the judge who replaces Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller to offer more extensive oversight of attorney fees for Sheriff John Darr's lawyers.
The city of Columbus will ask the judge who replaces Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller to offer more extensive oversight of attorney fees for Sheriff John Darr's lawyers. mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

Columbus Council got the bill today for another $72,000 in fees to Sheriff John Darr’s attorneys in his lawsuit against the city.

The bill came in the form of a first reading of an ordinance authorizing the administration to pay the money. Council will vote on the ordinance in two weeks.

The fees were ordered by Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller, a Stone Mountain judge who is hearing Darr’s case along with one filed by Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce and another filed jointly by Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop. The city is legally obliged to pay the attorney fees for Darr and Pierce because they are constitutional officers. It is not obliged to pay Countryman’s or Bishop’s because they are not.

Since the lawsuits were filed in late 2014, the city has paid more than $550,000 in legal fees for Darr and Pierce.

Councilor Judy Thomas asked City Attorney Clifton Fay asked if the city can expect to keep getting bills like this every month or two.

“I would think so,” Fay said. “I would imagine we’ll get one every month or every other month.”

All four of the elected officials contend in their suits that Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and Columbus Council improperly created budgets for their offices and that they were insufficient to carry out their obligations.

Some aspects of the lawsuits have been dropped by the plaintiffs and others tossed out by the court, but the suits remain. The city filed a motion to dismiss, but Fuller denied it in part. The city appealed to the state Supreme Court, which denied their motion, sending the suit back to Superior Court, where it resides now, in the discovery stage.

The city also filed a motion to dismiss Countryman’s and Bishop’s suit, which Fuller also partially denied. The city appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court, which transferred the appeal to the state Court of Appeals, where it is scheduled to be heard on the court’s April calendar.

The administration is paying the legal fees from the city’s Claims and Judgments Assigned Fund Balance, money set aside for legal judgments against the city. The city had originally proposed that they pay the fees out of Darr’s and Pierce’s office budgets, but the judge ordered that the money come from the General Fund. The city has no choice but to obey the court.

In addition to the $553,600 in plaintiff legal fees, the city has spent around that much on its own lawyers in the case, bringing the total to over $1 million. Some legal observers have said they expect that amount to double before the matters are settled.

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