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City Council looks to lawyer up 

CIty Sage

Living in Miami in the late 1970s, I got into an interesting conversation with my neighbor Lonnie. "Have you ever been arrested?" he began. "Nope," I replied.

"Do you know what to do when they read you your rights?" he asked. "They read you your rights, and then they ask you if you understand them. You say, 'No, I don't understand those rights. I want a lawyer.' And that's all you say. Just say it again and again if you have to, but that's all you say."

Good advice for anyone who might one day be arrested — and good advice for politicians as well, especially the nine City Councilors who spent most of last Saturday in an all-day "retreat" at Glen Eyrie. The elected officials seated around a generously sized conference table weren't accused of any crime, but they were sure of one thing.

They want an attorney! And they want city government to pay for their attorney! And they don't want City Attorney Chris Melcher to boss their attorney around! As for their rights, they don't understand why they appear to have none.

The City Charter is clear. The mayor appoints a city attorney, who represents the administration, City Council, Utilities and any other city-owned entities. The executive and legislative branches may quarrel and disagree, but they can't sue each other. The city attorney may, if asked, render an opinion, but he's not the "decider." The two sides have to resolve policy disputes through the political process, not through the courts.

Fine in theory, but the mayor has the upper hand. He hires the city attorney, and can fire him. The city attorney may try to be even-handed and respectful of Council, but he's still the mayor's consigliere — or so a majority of the former Council believed (see "Chris cross," cover story, March 6). Only Jan Martin, Val Snider and Merv Bennett remain from the 2011-13 group, but the six newbies have taken up the cause with a vengeance.

"The attorney is the most important issue we'll discuss today," said Council President Keith King.

King wasn't alone in that belief. All of his colleagues spoke in favor of having an independent source of legal advice, directly hired by Council, unconstrained by loyalty to Mayor Steve Bach or to Melcher.

Eager to avoid unseemly fireworks during the retreat, which was meant to focus on structural and procedural matters, Council had hired a facilitator, Susan Sparks. "I've been doing this for 25 years," said Sparks, a pleasantly steely woman, "but this is my first City Council. It's quite complex, isn't it?"

Sparks worked her subtle magic, listening carefully, observing body language and moving the meeting toward productive discussion. It was quite a performance, like watching two or three Catahoula leopard dogs herd a wild boar into a hidden pen. In fact, our Councilors didn't need much herding. To a person, they were smart, articulate, respectful and visibly competent.

"I can't tell you how impressive it is to sit around the table with so many professionals," said a clearly delighted Martin.

Melcher made his pitch, arguing that the city attorney is a neutral source of information for both mayor and Council, and his office's opinions are based solely on the law and not tailored to fit the mayor's political imperatives. Melcher warned darkly against the dangers of dueling opinions and of taxpayers forced to fund subsequent litigation.

New Councilor Joel Miller didn't buy Melcher's "neutral source of information" pitch.

"Maybe I'm really naïve," he observed, "but aren't lawyers about advocacy?"

A few minutes later, the usually controlled and courteous Don Knight voiced his exasperation. "You're not listening to understand," Knight told Melcher directly, "you're listening to respond. I hear a bunch of frustrated Councilmembers around the table."

An irritated Melcher opened up with both barrels. "Six of you have been in office for less than a month," he shot back, "and you've already jumped to so many wrong conclusions."

Sparks intervened, and the meeting settled down. But it's clear that King and his colleagues are powerfully assertive, and intend to reclaim all of the authority that Bach seized from their divided, bickering predecessors.

It'll be fascinating to watch.

hazlehurst@csindy.com

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