The ongoing legal battle between the mayor's office and City Council has cost taxpayers at least $304,635.62 in outside lawyers' fees since Mayor L. Douglas Wilder took office in 2005, Style Weekly has learned. And it's not over yet.
More than half of that figure can be attributed to the ongoing disagreement between the mayor and council about who has the power to hire and fire council staff as well as the council-appointed city assessor. The mayor says he does; council says it does.
In the most recent courtroom dust-up, Richmond Circuit Court Judge Margaret Spencer ruled earlier this month that council has the right to sue the mayor. Wilder contends that isn't so and is appealing that ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court, which will rack up more outside legal fees.
The city attorney's budget usually has money to hire outside counsel, says Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, who heads the finance committee.
Typically it's used when there's a conflict of interest for the city or when attorneys with legal specialties are not available on staff, she says. "But surely it's not with the intent that we would use the judicial system to help us define what the charter means."
A review of legal fees by Style, obtained through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, showed that McGuireWoods received $147,650.34 for representing Wilder in court since January 2005. For representing City Council in the same time period, LeClair Ryan received $132,681.06, Sands Anderson Marks & Miller received $16,213.16 and Greehan Taves Pandak & Stoner received $8,091.06.
Since the beginning of the city's fiscal year 2005 through fiscal 2007, which ends in June 2008, the city has budgeted $249,367 for outside counsel. So it's roughly $50,000 over budget two months into this budget cycle and has spent its allotment for the year.
City Hall spokesman Linwood Norman declined to comment, referring to the mayor's Aug. 6 newsletter. "When there is a change in any structure, adjusting operations to account for the change is a necessary cornerstone for that change to be successful," Wilder writes. "This holds equally true for changes in forms of government."
Nelson Wikstrom, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, says some growing pains are natural.
"Whenever you're going to have a change of governmental structure, there is going to be some lag time between when it becomes fully operational and when it comes into being," Wikstrom says.
Others say this kind of rancor is atypical.
"We knew some adjustments would be necessary" to the new city charter, says John Moeser, a visiting fellow at the University of Richmond who was involved in planning the city's switch from a city manager to an elected-mayor form of government. "What is terribly unfortunate is instead of adjustments made through goodwill, we've just had head-on collisions," Moeser says. "The judges have become the arbiter, and when conflict reaches that level, the court determines winners and losers, but it leaves a residue of mistrust and bitterness."
Wilder writes in his newsletter: "In none of these cases, nor any other since taking office as Mayor, have I filed a lawsuit against anybody." He concludes that "outside counsel is still on retainer, and will continue to be so until such time as these issues are permanently resolved." S