VOL. 131 | NO. 174 | Wednesday, August 31, 2016
Luttrell May Veto Ordinance on County Attorney
By Bill Dries
Shelby County Commissioners have approved a ballot question for the Nov. 8 elections that would give them the final say if the county mayor moves to fire the county attorney.
But before the vote Monday, Aug. 29, by commissioners, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell indicated he might veto the referendum, saying he has a “concern” about what would be a limit on the power of mayors with the proposed amendment to the Shelby County charter.
If Luttrell vetoes the ordinance, it would be the second time in less than a year he has vetoed a county commission action on the issue.
“I will certainly ponder all of the options,” Luttrell said, adding that he has never tried to influence legal advice the county attorney’s office gives to commissioners and has never tried to intrude on the relationship between the county attorney and commissioners.
But several commissioners said they favored the referendum to be decided by voters countywide because of the commission’s recent dispute with Luttrell over its attempt to hire its own attorney, independent of the county attorney’s office.
“If we had our own staff, this wouldn’t need to be implemented,” said commissioner Heidi Shafer.
Commissioner George Chism, one of the three no votes on the matter, questioned how the proposal would resolve the commission’s differences with Luttrell on having its own attorney.
“How does this solve the problem?” he asked. “We still can’t hire outside counsel.”
Commission chairman Terry Roland, who proposed the charter amendment referendum, replied, “It makes the county attorney independent.”
The county mayor now appoints the county attorney and the commission votes on that appointment. The charter amendment on the November ballot would require commission approval if the mayor moved to dismiss a county attorney.
Commissioners considered an amendment to the ballot question that would have allowed the mayor to fire a county attorney for cause without commission approval. But commissioners dropped the amendment saying it would make the question to voters too complex.
The commission has had former county commissioner Julian Bolton as its attorney since November, despite objections from the administration and former county attorney Ross Dyer, who said under the charter, the county attorney is the only legal counsel able to give advice to the commission. Outside counsel can and has been appointed in the past when the administration and commission took different positions, but that has been for specific legal cases.
Luttrell vetoed a November resolution in which the commission approved a resolution to hire its own legal counsel independent of the mayor. And the commission overrode his veto.
That’s when Roland moved to appoint Bolton. But until this month, Luttrell did not direct the administration to pay Bolton’s fee.
Bolton’s title under the compromise announced last week is legislative policy adviser to the commission and he will be paid $250 an hour up to a cap of $65,000 through the end of the calendar year.
Driving the controversy is the belief by Roland and several other commissioners that because the mayor appoints the county attorney, whoever holds that position feels an obligation to side with the mayor.
Dyer denied that was the case while he was county attorney.
Commissioners also wanted an independent attorney similar to attorney Allan Wade’s position as the attorney for the Memphis City Council. Wade works for the council independent of the city attorney’s office.
But Luttrell and Dyer both said the county charter establishes the county attorney’s position under different circumstances.
Luttrell said Monday he regards the county attorney’s position as being like that of the U.S. Attorney General, who represents the federal government in legal matters across the different parts of each government – executive and legislative.
“The Attorney General is not the president’s attorney,” Luttrell said. “He is the U.S. government’s attorney.”
Commissioner David Reaves questioned whether the issue matters to voters, who will be primarily interested in the presidential general election at the top of the November ballot, which makes the election cycle the most popular one in Shelby County in terms of voter turnout.
“I know it matters to commissioners,” Reaves said. “But what kind of an impact would it have on the average citizen who is voting on this?”