Civics 104: City Attorney

Submitted by

Suanne Z. Thamm

Reporter – News Analyst

(Fifth in a series of articles on local government)

The city attorney is the second Charter Officer in the city of Fernandina Beach. Under the terms of Section 31, “The City Commission shall appoint a city attorney, who shall act as the legal advisor to and attorney and counselor for the municipality and all of its officers in matters relating to their official duties.” The city attorney by Charter must be “a lawyer admitted to and having authority to practice in all courts of the state.” Like the city manager, the city attorney is an at will employee whose terms of employment are covered by a contract. During the past 40 or so years, the city of Fernandina Beach has employed 7 city attorneys:

  • Pre-1971-1980:  Herbert Fischler (whose name appears on the bridge at the south end of the island);
  • 1981-1992; 1998-2001:  Wesley Poole (and/or his law firm)
  • 1992-1993: Clyde Davis  (currently attorney for the Port Authority)
  • 1994-1997; interim, 2007:  Anthony Leggio
  • interim 2002:  Jeffrey Tomasetti
  • 2002-2007:  Debra Braga
  • 2007-today: Tammi Bach

As both federal and state governments have seen fit to pass many laws that bind local government, the need for legal assistance within the city has increased dramatically over this time frame. The city attorney not only advises the commission; s/he has an important role to play in reviewing contracts, personnel actions, and other potential actions of the city manager and the city clerk.  The city attorney serves as the city’s in-house risk manager. In addition to managing an office with one additional staffer, the city attorney is also required to staff monthly and special meetings of standing advisory committees that deal with land use issues:  Planning Advisory Board (PAB), Board of Adjustment (BOA), Code Enforcement & Appeals Board (CEAB), and the Historic District Council (HDC).

Initially, the city attorney was not actually a city employee, but rather was employed via contract with a retainer fee for part time service that ranged from $43,200-$68,371 annually between 1997-2001. The retainer covered a certain number of hours of legal support, but charges for additional hours beyond those covered by retainer ranged from an annual low of $128,230 to a high of $265,000 during this same period.  By 2002, the commission had reached the conclusion that it made more sense both financially and operationally to have a full-time city attorney on staff. The first person to fill that role was Debra Braga.

In budget year 2002-03, the first full year with a full-time staff attorney and one full-time office assistant, the city’s legal department budget dropped from $282,421 to $209,811. In the years since, the budget has remained fairly constant, ranging from a low of $239,851 to a high of $254,976. The proposed budget for 2012-13 is $244,893, which is lower than every budget between 1995 and 2002 for the city’s legal department under a part-time contract city attorney. The salary of the city attorney is based on a 40-hour week.  However, with the need to attend regular and special city commission meetings and at least 4 evening meetings per month with city boards, the city appears to be getting a lot more for its money than it did with lawyers on retainer who could add billable hours once the amount of hours covered by retainer was reached.

According to current city attorney Tammi Bach, “Some in the community will say, ‘Well, the City had several major lawsuits pending at the turn of the millennium which was the reason for the high legal costs. That may be true, but there is no way to predict how many lawsuits will be filed or how much they will cost. Since hiring a full-time City Attorney, the number of lawsuits has dramatically decreased because the City has an in-house risk manager to deal with issues before they go to litigation. The City also has general liability insurance, public officials liability and special lines for airport and marina that provide defense cost coverage to pay for expert litigators to defend the City. These lines of insurance and premiums would be required regardless of the fact that a part-time contracted City Attorney’s firm could provide some of the defense (at an additional hourly rate over the retainer amount) for these lawsuits.“

Periodically the city commission discusses a return to the days of a contracted, part-time city attorney. The logic of such a change escapes me. The staff city attorney works only for the city. Because the staff attorney is in residence, commissioners, other charter officers, city staff and citizens have easy access for questions and resolution of issues at early stages of dispute. The city attorney under the Charter must prepare all contracts which in practice range from items like credit applications to the more complex , such as the recent right-of-way agreement to permit construction of natural gas lines. During the month of May 2012 alone, the city attorney reviewed more than 30 contracts.

Would we all prefer to live in a less litigious world where common sense ruled the affairs of men and women? Absolutely.  But the reality of doing public and private business in a nation papered with laws that govern all aspects of our lives means that both reasonable and unreasonable people will disagree with some degree of regularity. While it is impossible to calculate, having a full-time city attorney on staff saves us money in terms of lawsuits that are never filed.

Next installment:  Civics 105: the City Clerk

June 11, 2012  7:56 a.m.