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Council vs. Mayor Bankrupts City Attorney

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The city attorney's office is officially broke. City Attorney Norman Sales says his office has no money left to pay the private lawyers representing City Council and the mayor in the lawsuit carousel that has defined the last two years.

"As of this writing, my office's operating budget has been overspent … and now has no funds available to pay other expenses related to the operation of the office," Sales writes in a letter to city officials dated Nov. 1.

Because the two branches of government are suing each other, Sales has maintained that his office is ethically unable to represent either side, and the legal battle has been left to outside lawyers.

Total bills for outside attorneys representing council and the mayor have reached $524,940.61 since Wilder took office in 2005, according to an internal budget analysis by City Council staff.

For this fiscal year, which began July 1, City Council appropriated only $97,605 for "special legal services," money usually used for hiring lawyers with specialties that staff attorneys might not have. So far, Sales' office has processed $231,130.86 in outside legal fees for the council-versus-mayor suits.

What's more, Sales says, the private legal bills should not have been paid out of his budget in the first place.

The city code indicates the bills should have been paid from an insurance fund in the risk management office under Chief Financial Officer Harry Black, Sales says.

Council President Bill Pantele insists it's a matter of bad accounting. "Clearly there needs to be some correction made, and the finance director [Black] should be the person who is making that happen," he says. "Neither the city attorney nor council -- nor the mayor for that matter — directs where those funds are charged."

After being alerted to the apparently erroneous expenditure, Pantele says that rather than correct the situation with an accounting adjustment, the finance department requested through Sales that Pantele "endorse some kind of a budget transfer" or ask the mayor to sponsor a budget amendment for additional funds.

Black says the issue is "being resolved," but exactly how and when is still "to be determined."

In response to Sales' letter, Wilder wrote to Pantele acknowledging that Sales is "technically correct" that the risk management fund should be used for outside attorney fees. Wilder, however, expresses reservations about using the fund and stresses that the money is intended to cover "unforeseen" situations, which apparently do not include the council and the mayor suing each other.

"We do not want to do anything that may deplete the fund. … in that legal bills continue to come in," Wilder writes.

In the meantime, Sales says his office will trudge ahead on a shoestring. "No lights are going to be turned off," he says. "We just have to be careful about how we use office supplies and things like that."

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