Commission Convenes To Address ‘Messy’ Issue

By Bill Dries

Shelby County commissioners meet in special session Wednesday, Nov. 8, at 10 a.m. to vote on ratifying a decision made last week by commission chairwoman Heidi Shafer to hire outside legal counsel to pursue a lawsuit against companies that make and distribute opioid drugs.

Heidi Shafer

The commission’s ratifying vote with a law firm follows a decision Monday, Nov. 6, by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell to take Shafer to court over what Luttrell termed her “unilateral” decision “outside the boundaries of the county charter” to hire the attorneys.

In Luttrell’s complaint, the county seeks a restraining order, temporary injunction and permanent injunction against Shafer from Chancellor Jim Kyle.

The county is also seeking expedited discovery on the matter.

Luttrell said Tuesday he was “taken aback” by Shafer’s announcement last week and called it “disconcerting” and a diversion from talks he and his administration have had with commissioners about dealing with opioid addiction, which is a problem locally and nationwide. The options Luttrell said he’s discussed with commissioners include pursuing legal action with other local and state governments.

“It (Shafer’s decision) has complicated county government’s initiative to move forward,” he said.

Shafer and several other commissioners announced the move to litigation at a Thursday press conference. Shafer added in a written statement that the move “will result in significant recovery for hundreds of millions of dollars that Shelby County has spent trying to heal, save, nurse and otherwise deal with the opioid crisis.”

The decision was made without a vote of the full county commission, prompting criticism from commissioner David Reaves that there should have been a vote of the 13-member body, and that appointment of special counsel by the commission chairman or chairwoman is reserved for emergencies.

While Shafer has described opioid addiction as an emergency, Luttrell disagreed.

He said while the problem is urgent, it does not constitute an emergency. He said the action was politically motivated.

“Litigation takes years,” he said, terming it a “process.”

“The action is in the process and we have had progress in that,” Luttrell added.

Shafer contends the chairman of the commission has the authority by the county charter to hire special counsel, citing past instances.

The county’s complaint in Chancery Court against her contends that is “unfounded.”

“The special counsel retained by Ms. Shafer in the instant case has not been retained to assist the county commission with exercising its legislative functions,” the complaint reads. “Ms. Shafer has not identified a ‘legislative function’ that unauthorized counsel is assisting the county commission in exercising and indeed no such ‘legislative function’ exists.”

At one point, questions about the lawsuit led to more questions about which lawsuit was being discussed.

“It’s kind of messy, isn’t it? It’s kind of confusing isn’t it?” Luttrell asked reporters. “It’s messy. It angers me. It diverts attention from the problem.”

Luttrell said if the commission approves a resolution Wednesday essentially ratifying Shafer’s decision, he will weigh his options and whether he believes the resolution also amounts to a violation of the county charter. He noted that he would have 10 days to either sign the resolution, veto it or let it take effect without signing it and possibly leave his lawsuit in effect.

“I think we’ve got to stop the unilateral approach,” Luttrell said. “And move this back into the process.”