Columbus Council voted tonight to ask the courts to offer further court oversight of invoices for attorney fees for Sheriff John Darr’s in their lawsuits against the city out of the city’s General Fund.
The decision, which followed an executive session on legal matters, was sparked by the decision of Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller, who had been hearing the cases, to recuse himself to spend more time taking care of his ailing wife.
Council was set to vote on an ordinance that would authorize paying two of Darr’s attorneys a total of $73,264 when City Attorney Clifton Fay put forth an amendment to the ordinance. In part, the amendment read:
“As with previous court-ordered payments, the ordinance is adopted under protest as to further encumbrance of the General Fund. Furthermore, in light of the recent recusal of the trial judge in this matter, this council is extremely concerned about the manner in which the legal fees and expenses on behalf of Sheriff Darr are reviewed. In the future, it is hoped that any new trial judge will allow a neutral party such as a Special Master to review any invoices for legal fees or expenses incurred on behalf of Sheriff Darr.”
The Council voted to include the amendment in the ordinance and then approved the ordinance, but not without expressing their displeasure with the court order forcing them to pay the fees for Darr and Pierce out of the General Fund, and for what they see as a lack of information about what they’re paying for.
Councilor Glenn Davis said he would vote to approve, but only because he is under court order to do so.
“Based on the ordinance, documents I’ve read, things that I’ve seen and heard, the articles in the paper and the words of our respected mayor, I think it’s very appropriate that total accountability takes place in this and is reviewed closely,” Davis said.
Councilor Skip Henderson said he has “no confidence” in the numbers presented to council and no reason to have confidence.
“While I appreciate the wording of the ordinance and that these payments are being made under protest, I don’t know if you can express quite strongly enough how much of a protest this is,” Henderson said. “I’m voting for it, but I’m going to close my eyes, hold my nose and spit in my palm before I push that button.”
Councilor Mike Baker also expressed his skepticism about the numbers on the invoices the city is receiving from the lawyers, through the court, specifically because it is all taxpayer money.
“I really don’t believe whether you’re a councilor, a constitutional officer or an attorney, nobody is above the accountability of the taxpayer dollars,” Baker said. “They’re the ones who are throwing the party here for everybody, and I think it’s gotten to the point where they deserve some accountability on the front end, before we pay these fees rather than after.”
With the approval of the fees today, the legal fees in the cases filed against the city by Darr, Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce, Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton-Bishop and Marshal Greg Countryman are approaching $2 million.
To date, the city has paid attorneys for Darr and Pierce $540,552. It is not required to pay the attorneys for Countryman or Bishop because they aren’t constitutional officers.
The city has paid its attorneys fighting the three cases $1.32 million, bringing the total for legal fees in the cases to $1.86 million.