Attorney's job 'on the line'

Friday, June 18, 2010

It would appear that most of Lewisburg's councilmen want a different city attorney, although a more perfect indication could be available on Tuesday when the council meets to adopt another annual budget.

Mayor Barbara Woods called City Attorney Bill Haywood on June 11, telling him about a consensus of the councilmen during budget deliberations on June 10. No vote has been taken yet. City attorney is one of three positions filled by the council.

Because Tuesday's meeting is called only for votes on the budget, a zoning matter and a cemetery issue, no vote on Haywood's employment is possible. A second of three required votes on the budget would, however, be an indication. Another meeting is planned this month.

Councilman Robin Minor has Haywood as his personal lawyer. Minor would prefer that Haywood remain city attorney and accept the $24,000 being budgeted for that service. Minor explained his preference Wednesday, after Woods spoke with Haywood.

"I'm like Robin. Would he accept a pay reduction?" the mayor said Wednesday, recalling council discussion last week. "But they clarified that they wanted another attorney."

Wednesday night, Haywood said he was weighing his options. One includes his strong suspicion that he could earn more as a private attorney than what's paid by the city. That thinking was a couple of days after he wrote to the council.

"I can appreciate the city trying to lower budgets and I am willing to take the $24,000 per year salary," he wrote in his letter dated Monday. "I would hate to see my tax money paying an out-of-town attorney who spends nothing in Lewisburg, as opposed to myself, who pays several thousand dollars in city taxes yearly."

Councilman Odie Whitehead Jr. noted that J. Stephen Broadway of Fayetteville wrote to the council on May 7.

"I submit that a salary in the $24,000 to $25,000 range would fit this criteria (that he outlined) as a part-time attorney," Broadway said in his letter that started, "Thank you for the interest in my possible employment."

It's unclear to some officials who made Broadway aware of an interest at Lewisburg City Hall in hiring a different city attorney. Broadway says he has served as Fayetteville's city attorney for 11 years. He's also served on Fayettville's town board for 10 years.

"I don't even know who told him to write us," said Minor who's acknowledged his conflict of interest in having Haywood as his personal attorney, but has reservations about hiring an out-of-town attorney.

Funding and attendance were two key issues mentioned in discussions about Haywood's continued service.

Asked if absenteeism was a chief reason for a consensus for finding another attorney, the mayor replied, "It was not said that way and there may be legitimate reasons for him to not be there."

Woods also recalled councilmen's comments that came when they had a legal question during a meeting. "'We could ask the city attorney if he was here,'" Woods recalled hearing from others on the council.

Woods was asked if the consensus might be rooted in conflict between the council and Police Officer Doug Alexander who resumed street patrol after years as the school resource officer at Lewisburg Middle School, and a few years as chief of police. The city is ending its contract with county schools for the SRO job. Alexander's transfer from chief to SRO came with a handshake agreement between Haywood and Alexander's attorney, Walter Bussart, after several police issues became topics of council concern.

"I didn't hear anything that was about that," Woods replied.

Councilman Ron McRady said if Alexander returned to street patrol, the council could stop spending money on the SRO contract. There was a budgeted opening in the patrol division.

McRady also pointed out that some council discussion was leading to the question of whether Lewisburg should have a full-time attorney. That discussion didn't continue, but it was raised Wednesday night with Haywood.

A full-time city attorney would have to be paid $100,000, or more, he said. Legal advice to the council is a small part of his duties. The city attorney prosecutes cases in City Court and is available to provide legal advice to police at any time of day.

"It all has to do with the budget and setting the budget for the fiscal year," Whitehead said. "I have nothing against Mr. Haywood, personally. It's strictly money. It would be up to him to decide."

Asked about his plan for a possible vote, Whitehead said, "I would have to wait and see what the consensus is, what the discussion is" on whether he'd be comfortable with Haywood continuing at a lower pay rate.

Bob Binkley was Lewisburg's attorney before Haywood. Binkley was paid $1,000 a month and he charged an hourly rate for each hour more than 10 in any month, City Manager Eddie Fuller said.

When Haywood was hired, he was paid $45,000 a year, Fuller said. Binkley's annual city pay was about $41,000 in the late 1990s and was nearly $56,000 in 1996-97. It depended on the amount of work.

Haywood's compensation grew to nearly $53,000 and dropped by $6,000 when Binkley was paid that for annual service to the city's Industrial Development Board. The figures from Fuller were found in city payroll records.