Marshal, court clerks file lawsuit against mayor, councilors, others

Three more of Muscogee County’s elected officers are suing the mayor and council over their budgets.

Following Muscogee Sheriff John Darr’s suit filed Monday, the marshal, municipal court clerk and superior court clerk also submitted claims Thursday that the city government illegally substituted budgets for those offices instead of considering budget proposals from their chief administrators.

Like the sheriff, they claim the city charter gives the mayor and city manager no authority to submit budgets for their offices, and that’s what happened as council deliberated over Columbus’ overall fiscal year 2015 budget.

“The mayor and city manager are not authorized by the charter, or the constitution and laws of Georgia to submit to the council their proposed annual budget plaintiffs and other elective officers, and agencies not under the direct control and jurisdiction of the council,” reads the suit filed jointly by Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop. “Instead, they are required by the charter to incorporate the budget requests submitted to them by these officers and agencies into the overall consolidated government request submitted to the council.”

The suit cites a section of the city charter that in part reads those elected officials shall “prepare and submit to the city manager annual operating and capital budget requests for the ensuing fiscal year. Such budget requests shall be incorporated into the overall consolidated government budget for submission by the mayor to the council.”

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said the elected leaders themselves violated the charter, because they never submitted budget proposals to the city manager. They sent their budgets directly to councilors.

Besides the mayor, the lawsuit filed by the marshal and municipal court clerk individually names each city councilor except the late Red McDaniel, City Manager Isaiah Hugley, Finance Director Pam Hodge and City Attorney Clifton Fay.

The suit claims these individuals have no authority to “dictate” how the other elected executives spend their budgets, and that this is well established from previous inquiries about the division of such power.

Tomlinson said that’s true: Once their budgets are approved, they can spent their money as they wish. But they can’t go over budget, demand more funding and then claim the city has usurped their authority.

The suit filed by Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce names the same individuals as filed by Countryman and Bishop, but adds Reather Hollowell, the city’s human resources director. It claims the same charter violation — that the mayor and council exceeded their authority by substituting their budget for Pierce’s.

It says city administrators by budget policy essentially have established an illegal and unconstitutional process “to control the day-to-day operation of the clerk’s office and the manner in which the clerk spends funds appropriated to her budget.”

Because the budget council adopted did not adequately provide for the superior court clerk’s personnel needs, “the clerk will run out of funds earmarked in a budget line item for wages by the end of December 2015,” the lawsuit says.

The lawyers filing the suits held a news conference Thursday at the Government Center, where Pierce’s attorney William Stone of Blakely, Ga., predicted dire consequences if the superior court clerk’s office can’t continue operating.

The clerk keeps all real estate records which must be examined to validate property sales, he noted: “If that clerk’s office closes, the real estate market in this community will collapse. You won’t be able to get a bank loan. You won’t be able to buy a house. Your property value will go to nothing because you can’t sell it,” he said.

Columbus attorney Charles Miller represents Countryman and Bishop.

The lawyers said they want a judge to set aside the city’s fiscal year 2015 budget, because they believe it illegally was adopted. In that instance each government division would operate according to the fiscal year 2014 budget on a monthly basis until a new budget’s adopted. The new budget should be subjected to a “deliberative process” that fairly considers the financial needs of their clients’ offices, they said.

They want a judge to hold a hearing on their plea for temporary relief, they said, but that could be a long time coming, as no Muscogee judge is likely to hear the lawsuits, each having some conflict because their offices get funding from the city, and the sheriff provides their courtroom security, which the sheriff in his suit claims also is underfunded.

The attorneys said local judges likely will recuse themselves, leaving a district court administrator to seek an outside judge to consider the claims.

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