Originally created 02/15/02

Augusta calls off lawyer search



The Augusta Commission has scrapped its search for an in-house city attorney, with government officials saying the nearly 18-month effort has not attracted enough qualified candidates.

Instead of replacing City Attorney Jim Wall, members of the commission's law study subcommittee, who met Thursday, have recommended hiring additional staff attorneys. The staffers would help Mr. Wall and the single staff attorney with whom he works handle an increasingly demanding workload.

At issue, however, is who would hire those two city employees. The matter is expected to go before the full commission Wednesday.

Some commissioners say they support allowing Mr. Wall to hire the people who work for him; others say the Augusta Commission should have the final say.

The argument mirrors an ongoing one regarding hiring and firing power for the city administrator.

"If you don't have the confidence that I'm going to hire people who are going to do the best job, you've got the wrong person as a city attorney, anyway," Mr. Wall told the commission committee Thursday. "If you have enough confidence in me to do the legal work, you ought to have enough confidence in me to go out and get lawyers."

The staff attorney, who was hired by Mr. Wall last year, is considered a city employee. Mr. Wall - a partner in an Augusta law firm - provides his legal services through an annually renewed contract.

"These people who are coming here are not going to be on Jim Wall's staff," said Commissioner Marion Williams, who sits on the law study subcommittee and supports commission hiring power. "The loyalty ought to be to this government and to do the best job that it can."

Commissioners voted 6-4 in October 2000 to create an in-house legal services department. The in-house department is supposed to be phased in as the commission's relationship with the current city attorney is phased out. The plan aims to gradually replace Mr. Wall with an in-house general counsel who would work directly for the commission.

But candidates for the general counsel position have been underqualified and inexperienced, commissioners said. The names and resumes of applicants are protected by law, and have not been made public.

Commissioner Willie Mays, who has been a vocal supporter of creating an in-house law department, said as long as Mr. Wall continues to direct the city's legal matters, he should decide who works for him.

The 6-4 vote that created a law department could swing the other way regarding who has hiring power for the city's staff attorneys with Mr. Mays' support.

"If you're fixing to handle all the legal work of the city, I'd just as soon give (hiring responsibility) to Jim," Mr. Mays said. Staffing for what he calls a "hybrid" legal department should be handled by Mr. Wall "as any other department would deal with staffing," he said.

Law Study Subcommittee Chairman Lee Beard initially said the commission should have the authority to hire staff attorneys, but after Thursday's meeting he was undecided on how he will vote next week.

Hiring and firing power for the administrator, which he has not supported, is unrelated, he said.

"They're two different things," Mr. Beard said.

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or heidi.williams@augustachronicle.com.