By Lynn West/New Albany News-Exchange
NEW ALBANY — New Albany has fired its city attorney, and that attorney is going to fight back.
Aldermen voted Tuesday to fire longtime city attorney Robert M. Carter after two hours of closed-session discussion that included at least one break so the board could obtain outside legal advice on the situation.
The termination, which took effect immediately, came as the result of a 4-1 vote. Ward 3 Alderman Tommie Beasley was the only one in favor or keeping Carter while Alderman-at-Large Scott Dunnam, Ward 1 Alderman Jeff Olson, Ward 2 Alderman Johnny Anderson and Ward 4 Alderman Bill Tucker voted against the attorney.
Mayor Tim Kent said a new attorney had not been selected but he expected to have an interim attorney today.
The city board members became upset last week when they learned that Carter had filed a lawsuit seeking class action status against Toyota, which is building a plant in nearby Blue Springs.
Carter filed the suit in federal court in Oxford on behalf of two Alabama attorneys as part of an effort to qualify as a nationwide suit.
The Alabama attorneys could not legally file in Mississippi and they also needed a local plaintiff for the suit. That representative plaintiff is Belva Simmons, who owns a 2007 Toyota Camry that is part of a company recall.
Allegations against Toyota
The suit alleges that Toyota did not adequately respond to incidents of accelerator malfunction that led to sudden, uncontrollable acceleration.
It claims the car manufacturer breached both express and implied warranties and that its failure constituted fraud in concealing the extent of the problem.
Once word of the suit got out, aldermen and county supervisors apparently felt political pressure to get rid of Carter.
Officials were concerned about the appearance of the situation for a town that expects to benefit considerably from the Blue Springs plant, which has been put on hold until the economy improves.
Kent said a local Toyota official who told him the suit would have no effect on Toyota’s plans to build vehicles at the Blue Springs plant and was just an expected part of business.
The mayor said city and county officials were much more upset than the Toyota representative but conceded that even though the company expected the suit, it would have been preferable if it had been filed in South Mississippi rather than the northern part, as far as appearance was concerned.
Carter contended he did nothing wrong because the filing was part of his private practice and there was no conflict of interest with Toyota. He did say that, in hindsight, he wishes he had talked with the city officials about it, but that attorneys file lawsuits and other paperwork for each other all the time.
“I did not want to say anything before the (city board) meeting because I had extended them an olive branch,” Carter said later Monday night. He said that if the city did fire him he would be willing to stay on in a consulting capacity during the transition period for a fairly nominal fee in order to keep his medical insurance.
“The board rejected that olive branch and that was punitive,” he said.
Carter also said he feels the board’s action is not justified and, although it is out of character for him, he will file suit himself.
He said he has a right to sue because the city violated this one-year contract as city attorney and the city also fired him without cause.
He added that aldermen have been committing actions that he warned were illegal and that he can document those actions.
“They asked me to resign but I told them I had done nothing wrong, or unethical. I said I would resign with certain conditions attached (regarding the insurance) but they rejected that,” he said. “I then told them to do what they had to do and I would do what I have to do.”
He said he is obtaining his own legal counsel immediately and plans to sue the aldermen in their role as city officials and also as individuals. “That’s because they have stepped outside the legal bounds of their authority; their action has been purely punitive,” he said.
Carter’s partner in Sumners, Carter and Mueller, Thad Mueller, is attorney for the Union County Board of Supervisors and it has been reported that board also has been very upset about the suit being filed, asking Mueller to separate himself from the law firm.
Mueller said Monday that he still is the county board’s attorney and did not want to comment further, pending the result of Monday’s meeting.
Carter promised to elaborate on his charges later. “There’s more to be said and I will say it, in print or in court,” he said.