A contentious issue facing the Tupelo City Council as it decides whether to approve the city budget by Sept. 15 is Mayor Jason Shelton’s request to crate a new city position, an in-house city attorney. Among Mississippi’s nearly 300 municipalities, less than 10 have attorneys who serve as city employees. Pascagoula city attorney Eddie Williams spoke with Daily Journal reporter Robbie Ward about the position from his perspective. Williams has served as in-house attorney for the city for six years, a position Pascagoula first filled in 1973.
Q: Based on your perspective, what benefits are there for cities with an in-house attorney compared to those who contract with an outside attorney?
A: The advantage, obviously, is you’ve got somebody there all of the time you can go to to get information. I actively involve myself in all operations of the city – community development, public works, almost anything the city is involved in. When they come to me for advice, I don’t have a steep learning curve.
The advantage is knowing someone on a first-name basis. You’ve got ready-made legal assistance that’s a short walk away. When you have outside counsel, they might be at a trial, or they might be on vacation when you need them.
Q: What happens when your office faces more of a workload of time-sensitive situations than the in-house counsel can handle?
A: There have been a couple of times that we had to get stuff done that I couldn’t get to. We had to go outside and hire attorneys for something related to eminent domain. It’s rare. Usually, I’m able to keep up with the workload.
Q: How would you imagine the transition would be to go from an outside law firm to an in-house city attorney?
A: It depends on the experience level of the attorney they hire and the learning curve of that person. I had a good understanding of what cities do and my learning curve was pretty short. I imagine if you bring in an attorney with good experience and good walking-around sense, they’ll get up to speed pretty quick. I suspect it’ll take about a year.