VOL. 130 | NO. 238 | Tuesday, December 8, 2015
County Commission Attorney Dispute Deepens
By Bill Dries
Shelby County Commission chairman Terry Roland says the commission’s dispute with county Mayor Mark Luttrell over hiring its own attorney could wind up in Chancery Court after the holidays.
But Roland also said the parliamentary back and forth could include making it harder for Luttrell to get items on the commission agenda.
“We’re going to try to work through this. If we can’t get there we might go to court and ask for a declaratory judgment,” Roland said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind the Headlines.”
Roland said he is negotiating a compromise with county attorney Ross Dyer for the hiring of an independent county commission attorney. But Luttrell has been adamant that it is the mayor who has the power under the county charter to make contracts.
“The county mayor is the only one that has contractual authority,” Luttrell said last week before the taping of the television program with Roland and county commissioner Heidi Shafer. “Not the county attorney and not the chairman of the county commission. They approve contracts but they can’t initiate contracts.”
Told of Luttrell’s comments, Roland conceded the point. But he raised another possibility. “I told him per the charter he’s over the contracts,” Roland said. “But as per the charter, I’m over the agenda. If he wants to put something on the agenda, he needs to talk about maybe signing this contract.”
Roland also raised the political ante.
“Believe me, I’m not thinking of going in this direction, but the next step per the charter says that I write him a letter and give him 10 days or we can start ouster procedures on him,” Roland said. “I don’t want to do that.”
“Behind the Headlines” is hosted by Daily News publisher Eric Barnes and can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.
Roland appointed former county commissioner Julian Bolton as a special counsel to the commission in November. The body then approved a resolution hiring and paying Bolton. Luttrell vetoed the resolution, and commissioners overrode the veto. Luttrell then said in writing that he would not carry out the resolution.
Luttrell and Dyer have said the county charter specifically forbids anyone other than the county attorney from giving legal advice to the commission. The interview with Roland and Shafer was also an indication that the dispute has deepened to include the dissatisfaction of some commissioners with legal advice given by Dyer.
At the outset of the controversy, commissioners went out of their way to say their concern wasn’t with Dyer but with whoever held the post of county attorney being appointed by the mayor.
Dyer has repeatedly said that although he is appointed by Luttrell, it does not affect his legal opinions and representation of different parts of county government.
“The real rub is the legal advice we’ve been getting lately has been differently interpreted than any other county attorney ever,” Shafer said. “Previous county attorneys have always said if there are differences between executive and legislative – they realized they cannot be legal counsel for both parties. You can’t do that. So they would hire outside counsel. This county attorney has failed and refused to do so and is trying to represent both parties. In my view that is an unacceptable conflict of interest.”
Shafer and Roland expressed hesitancy to take the matter to Chancery Court, which in recent years has seen several disputes among commissioners on the docket.
That includes a redistricting controversy as well as a recent dispute over the powers of the chairman during Justin Ford’s tenure as head of the body.
Roland said if there is a Chancery Court lawsuit, Bolton would not represent commissioners in that particular dispute. He also said the lawsuit would likely include testimony from members of the county charter commission that drafted the existing charter. Several members of that body have said their intent was for the county commission to have independent legal counsel. Others have said that was not the intent.