Augusta fire chief seeks designated attorney

Augusta Fire Chief Chris James and city attorney Jody Smitherman wait outside an Augusta Commission legal session in March. James wants Smitherman to serve as attorney full time for the fire department. FILE

A behind-the-scenes push by Augusta Fire Chief Chris James to get senior staff attorney Jody Smitherman assigned to his department full time is raising questions with several city commissioners.

 

Smitherman’s boss, General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie, said Friday that James presented the move to top staff in anticipation of “increased legal needs” at the fire department and ahead of budget cuts that may eliminate vacant positions, such as that held by former fire public information officer Dee Griffin, who left in June.

While several commissioners said they were told the move was a done deal, MacKenzie said it is not. Commission approval might not legally be required – Smitherman’s salary of approximately $106,000 is unlikely to change – but to create and fully fund a staff attorney position from the fire budget requires several actions to take place, including the draft of an intergovernmental agreement, he said.

A fire department lawyer would be a first for Augusta, MacKenzie said.

Smitherman would not be the first attorney assigned to a separately-funded city department. Former staff attorney Kayla Cooper has worked full time to represent Augusta Utilities for about a year, Utilities Director Tom Wiedmeier said.

James’ move would free up law department funding and MacKenzie said he hoped to fill Smitherman’s position, as well as another vacancy open since the recent resignation of staff attorney Kenneth Bray. The department has grown to six full-time attorneys since it was created in 2007 with a staff of two.

James did not return calls seeking comment but city spokesman Jim Beasley said City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson had not signed off on documents transferring Smitherman.

The department faces “numerous challenges” that prompted James’ request for dedicated legal assistance, including the commission’s recent vote to attempt to become zone provider of ambulance service, Beasley said.

While the city has only taken the initial step of asking the state for the designation, associated tasks Smitherman would handle include developing a billing and collection system and dealing with health privacy laws, among other things, according to MacKenzie.

Smitherman and James worked closely in a previous four-year battle with provider Gold Cross EMS for the ambulance zone that the city only lost this year when the Georgia Court of Appeals tossed out Augusta’s appeal for technical reasons.

A graduate of Valparaiso University School of Law who joined city government in 2010, Smitherman represented the department in several court challenges by groups of firefighters alleging pay discrepancies that have usually resulted in city settlements.

Smitherman has primarily performed human resources legal work, including the 2011 and ongoing current rewrites of the city personnel policies and procedures manual, salary analyses for elected officials, pension and retirement plan legal work and other work. Smitherman has represented the city in termination hearings, on open records requests and in code enforcement cases.

Most recently, Smitherman, rather than Beasley, served as James’ spokeswoman during Hurricane Irma.

Several commissioners were surprised to learn of the change as Augusta considers increasing the fire tax to bolster the 2018 budget.

“I want to hear from the administrator why we’re adding a position when we’re having a fire tax discussion,” Commissioner Sean Frantom said.

Frantom said when he asked James about the move, the chief indicated it already had Jackson’s approval.

James said Smitherman is “getting pulled between multiple departments and he needs her,” Frantom said.

“If (James) needs a full-time lawyer to run the fire department, he’s got too much money in his division,” said another commissioner, Grady Smith. “Every division down there doesn’t need a lawyer – that’s just somebody trying to make themselves look big.”

Commissioner Marion Williams said James ought to focus on “handling fire calls and rescues,” not litigation, and that the position, if created, ought to be advertised.

“How much work are they doing now?” Williams said. “If the workload has been cut down, the pay ought to be cut down.”

At least one commissioner said the plan was “not a bad idea,” particularly after Smitherman’s “outstanding” role as spokeswoman during the storm.

“The fire department is a huge department – I wouldn’t see where the problem would be there,” Commissioner Dennis Williams said.

Reach Susan McCord at (706) 823-3215 or susan.mccord@augustachronicle.com

 

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