While the amount has decreased recently, the city of Augusta continues to rely heavily on costly outside counsel, spending nearly $700,000 on legal fees in 2012 despite employing five staff attorneys.
Combined with staff salaries, the government spent nearly $1.3 million on representation during 2012. By comparison, Columbia County spent less than $400,000, according to county officials.
City records show $695,462 went to three Augusta law firms and two Atlanta firms, but the bulk, $460,569, was paid to Augusta-based Shepard, Plunkett, Hamilton & Boudreaux.
The firm includes Jim Plunkett, who handled most of the city's transactions related to construction and operations of the Augusta Convention Center and a parking garage to serve it; former county attorney Stephen Shepard; and Dan Hamilton, who represented Augusta in a costly wrongful-death lawsuit settled last year.
The legal details associated with the convention center and parking garage, projects funded by sales-tax funds and a bond issue cost Augusta $45,080 in legal fees.
An additional $345,748 in legal fees included labor-intensive litigation leading to the Augusta Commission's decision in September to settle a wrongful-death claim. Ryan Holt and Michelle Borror were killed in a 2011 mobile home fire after a city electrical inspection.
The firm received $69,741 in fees for real estate and utilities work, most paid using sales-tax funds.
Augusta Regional Airport racked up legal bills of $148,595 during 2012, all from the Atlanta law firm Freeman Mathis & Gary. The charges were paid from airport coffers, mostly for airline contract, construction and personnel-related legal issues.
Handling $53,634 in litigation against former Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength was the Augusta firm Wall Ellison LLP, which is former city attorney Jim Wall and Jim Ellison. The firm represented Strength, Richmond County Clerk of Court Elaine Johnson and occasionally the commission in about a dozen lawsuits during the year.
Andrew MacKenzie, who heads the city law office, said bills for outside counsel are within his annual budget for them, even with elected officials having their own choice of representation. He said the complexity of the work, such as Plunkett's work on the convention center, and occasional unexpected volume preclude Augusta from ever having an in-house staff capable of performing it all. His five staff attorneys and three legal secretaries cost Augusta $577,412 in salaries.
“The needs are so incredibly diverse,” MacKenzie said. “It’s my opinion that the structure that’s in place is more efficient.”
The office has made a conscious effort to conserve, as Augusta’s external legal bills are down, he said. In 2011, the city paid $772,809 to outside firms, down from $1.7 million the year before.
Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson said the county keeps its legal fees down by retaining the Augusta law firm Hull Barrett to handle all its legal issues under a negotiated rate, with Hull Barrett partner Doug Batchelor serving as county attorney.
“Fortunately, the Hull firm is large enough that they could handle pretty much anything,” Johnson said.
A smaller player in Augusta’s outside counsel business – Randy Frails of Frails & Wilson, which billed for $22,430 in city legal work during the year – said he’d like to see the city spread the work better.
Frails, who is black and was recently selected to be part of the Richmond County sheriff’s counsel, said he hoped future outsourcing would better reflect the shifting balance of power to blacks in city government.
The spread of legal work between in-house and outside counsel seems unavoidable in litigation-prone Augusta, Frails said, but he wishes more of it went to black law firms like his.
“We just think the city should spread more of the work around,” he said.
At least one Augusta commissioner is not convinced the system is working. New District 7 Commissioner Donnie Smith said he’d recently requested a tally of legal fees for outside counsel.
“I just want to make sure that we're getting the best representation we can,” Smith said.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said Augusta has more at stake that requires the extra expense. Plus, the law department, like many Augusta departments, remains understaffed. MacKenzie said he's kept an attorney slot open for several years because of budget constraints.
“It takes a lot to protect Augusta,” Guilfoyle said. "We could get sued for anything."