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VOL. 132 | NO. 224 | Friday, November 10, 2017

County Legal Dispute Latest In A Series

By Bill Dries

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As attorneys for Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s administration and the county commission were in Chancery Court Tuesday, Nov. 7, the Memphis City Council’s attorney, Allan Wade, was being honored for 25 years of service to the city.

The appearance before Chancellor Jim Kyle is the latest chapter in an ongoing struggle between Luttrell and the county commission over legal representation.

It’s a struggle City Hall resolved long ago. Wade has, at times, represented and advised the city administration as well as the council.

Heidi Shafer

And Wade was among those in the audience on Wednesday, Nov. 8, when the county commission voted 8-0 to ratify a decision by commission chairwoman Heidi Shafer to hire legal representation for litigation against Big Pharma over the opioid epidemic.

Luttrell has said the county charter differs from the city charter and makes the county attorney the sole source of legal advice, up to and including making decisions to seek and hire outside counsel.

When Luttrell filed suit in Chancery Court this week challenging Shafer’s decision, it resulted in Luttrell’s administration hiring outside counsel for the suit.

Luttrell contends Shafer violated the county charter, and he acknowledged that the dispute is part of an ongoing political tug of war.

Mark Luttrell

“I think that that’s a dialogue that’s always going to be there,” Luttrell said of his complaints and complaints by the commission that one is encroaching on the duties and responsibilities of the other.

He’s talked about it with past county mayors.

“They will talk about some of the same issues that they were dealing with that we’re dealing with now,” Luttrell said. “It does seem to have intensified a little bit over the last couple of years and that’s unfortunate.”

The commission’s 8-0 vote to ratify Shafer’s decision is an endorsement she had the right to hire outside counsel.

Luttrell is now deciding whether he should veto the resolution.

Kyle will check in with all sides in the legal dispute on Tuesday, Nov. 14.

“His directions were for government to do what government does and to work this issue out,” Shafer said.

Commissioner Terry Roland, whose move while chairman two years ago to hire former commissioner Julian Bolton as special counsel, put the disagreement on the front burner politically.

And the dispute is becoming a campaign issue as county government prepares for 2018 elections that will see a new county mayor and at least six new commissioners on the 13-member body.

Using the hashtag “trustthe process,” county trustee David Lenoir, who along with Roland and Juvenile Court Clerk Joy Touliatos, is running in the May Republican primary for county mayor, sided with Luttrell.

“I remember when I was first elected, I had to deal with a ‘no-bid’ ‘no-cost’ contract with a law firm that was done unilaterally by a city of Memphis elected official,” he wrote in a Facebook post Wednesday. “The reason it was ‘no-cost’ is because they were adding additional fees to delinquent taxpayers. There is a reason we have a vetting/bidding process.”

Roland, meanwhile, says the dispute amounts to a choice between joining potential opioid litigation by county governments versus joining potential litigation by state governments. Roland says the difference between the two is how much money the county could get in an eventual settlement with Big Pharma, with more coming if the county joins other counties instead of joining states.

“This way, we get a seat at the table,” he said. “There’s two philosophies there and we picked the other philosophy that would give us the most chance of recouping the resources that we have lost.”

Shafer said after Wednesday’s commission vote that the commission wants the administration to manage the direction of possible litigation from this point on.

Luttrell said before the vote that county attorney Kathryn Pascover continues to assemble the administration’s legal strategy and talk with various law firms. He also said Shafer’s decision, ratified by the commission, could complicate that.

“Once you enter litigation, the discussion stops,” he said.

Luttrell said the dispute is a distraction from an issue he and the commission appear to agree on – finding a way to hold drug companies accountable for the widespread use and abuse of opioid drugs. He called Shafer’s decision a “rear guard action” to that.

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