Hed: Council hires new lawyers for Ridgeway case
By Philip Moulden
Tupelo City Council has voted to hire a separate attorney to handle legal actions involving cost overruns on the Ridgeway subdivision project.
The switch came on the recommendation of city attorney Guy Mitchell III after a late-night council executive session Tuesday. Mitchell said elements of the case could make him, or other members of his firm, subject to be called as witnesses in any court actions.
“In order to avoid duplication of costs … I suggested they (council) employ separate counsel now,” Mitchell said Wednesday. “We didn’t want to get deep into the case, then find out we needed to turn it over to someone else.”
The council selected Crosthwait Terney Noble & Allain of Jackson.
The state attorney general on Tuesday began a criminal investigation into alleged billings in connection with the project that ran an estimated $721,000 more than materials and work actually supplied. State Auditor Steve Patterson asked for the attorney general probe after his investigators spent about two weeks studying the overruns.
As examples of possible legal conflicts, Mitchell said advice he provided in telephone conversations with city officials based on hearsay information that purportedly came from former Public Service Department Director Randy McMickin could make him a potential witness.
McMickin was fired last month by Mayor Jack Marshall for “inefficient management” in the wake of the huge billing discrepancies on the project.
It also appears a question may be raised regarding the adequacy of “training” given city employees exercising purchasing power. Mitchell’s firm – Mitchell McNutt Threadgill Smith & Sams – which is in whole the city’s attorney, conducted a seminar on purchasing for city employees, he said.
Meanwhile, the city remains locked in a box that threatens to delay restart of work at the dust-blown subdivision for another three weeks.
Officials were reportedly continuing negotiations with Tupelo engineering firm Frank Castles & Associates, the Ridgeway project engineer, to waive his rights to project work. The city removed Castles, and other private firms associated with the work, after the discrepancies were discovered.
But Castles reportedly invoked a contract clause that required 30 days’ notice for termination, a notice the city didn’t give Castles’ firm until last week.
City officials said they were prepared to begin work immediately and hash out the engineering dispute in court later. But without the waiver, a professional ethics standard for engineers keeps another engineering firm from taking on the job as long as Castles’ contract is in force.
Castles could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
In other late action Tuesday, the council agreed to pay three city police dog handlers between $4,500 and $14,000 in back overtime based on a recent federal Wage & Hour Division ruling.
The ruling basically held that handlers who did any training, grooming, or related activities with the city-owned animals outside duty hours were entitled to overtime pay.
Under the settlement approved by the council, K-9 handler Dick Erickson will receive $14,000, Chuck Bunn $12,000, and Peggy Thompson $4,500. The settlement also called for K-9 officers to confine dog care and training activities to duty hours to avoid overtime payments.