Shelton: Hire in-house city attorney

Tupelo StockBy Robbie Ward
Daily Journal

TUPELO – Mayor Jason Shelton’s first budget he’ll present to the City Council will likely not include contracting with an outside law firm.

Shelton, beginning his second month in office and preparing his first budget, said in an interview with the Daily Journal that the document of financial priorities will include creating an in-house legal department within city government.

Tupelo-based law firm Mitchell, McNutt & Sams has contracted with the city for legal services for 36 of the last 40 years, dating back to former Mayor Clyde Whitaker’s administration.

Generally speaking, Shelton said the budget he and the city’s financial team prepare will reflect the fiscal conservatism he often touted on the campaign trail. It won’t include employee pay raises and will likely freeze hiring for open positions.

“The goal is essentially managing last year’s budget in balanced approach,” Shelton said.

An attorney, Shelton said an in-house city attorney would be “budget neutral or even save money.” City records show annual spending on legal fees with the law firm ranges from about $300,000 to $400,000, not including legal expenses related to Tupelo’s annexation court battle that ended last year.

Attorney John Hill has represented the firm at City Council meetings and other municipal issues, while other staff attorneys assist with a variety of legal cases.

Shelton sees Mitchell, McNutt & Sams continuing to represent the city in ongoing cases where changing attorneys would be problematic.

Mitchell, McNutt & Sams has represented governmental entities including municipalities, counties, school boards and numerous other public sector boards and commissions. “I have nothing but respect for their firm,” Shelton said.

But he said the fact that the change could save the city money was a reason to make the change, and said he would conduct a search for a qualified in-house legal counsel. He said he had no one specifically in mind.

Conservative budgeting coupled with city budget projections of flat sales tax growth and increases in property taxes only through the addition of recently annexed property set the tone for a budget season less likely to approve new funding requests.

The current fiscal year budget is set at about $36 million.

City employees, who last received a cost of living raise in Fiscal Year 2012, shouldn’t expect any pay increases in the mayor’s budget. Shelton said the city will likely place a hiring freeze on current vacant positions.

Departments in the city with high-dollar requests, such as a new fire truck costing nearly $500,000, may have to wait until the next fiscal year before making the purchase. Unlike his predecessor, former Mayor Jack Reed Jr., Shelton said his goal is to balance the city’s budget without use of bonds for expensive items or dipping into the city’s $18 million in reserves.

However, the mayor’s plans to create a new city department and his ideas about city personnel could meet some resistance on the City Council.

Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington said he was unaware of the mayor’s proposals, and that no meetings have been held with the council related to the Fiscal Year 2014 budget that must be approved in just more than a month, a requirement of state law.

Whittington said he and other council members have their own ideas about personnel, including a reduction of 50 employees and providing those still with jobs with a 10 percent pay increase.

Whittington questioned Shelton’s recent filling of the vacant communications director position and his planning to add a legal department but wanting to freeze other vacant positions.

“If he wants to control personnel costs, why are we adding to the personnel?” Whittington said.

In Tupelo’s form of government, the City Council sets policy and approves the city’s funding and expenditures while the mayor runs day-to-day functions of the city. Shelton will provide a proposed budget to the City Council, which then can make changes before approving it.

“The power of the council is the power of the purse strings,” Whittington said.

Council President Nettie Davis of Ward 4 could not be reached by the Daily Journal late Wednesday for a response to the mayor’s proposals.

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  • Lied-To

    “He said he had no one specifically in mind.” – bull-doo-doo. An Attorney, who is now the Mayor of a city, with NO ONE IN MIND to hire as the City Attorney. Liar. Typical Democrat – more government paid positions. crap. crap. crap. I was lied to when i voted for him.

  • Guest

    Typical Democrat??????? We contract a private firm at the tune of $400,000 a year – we can pay an in house person $150,000. a year and save 250,000 a year. Sounds to me like “Typical MATH!” or “Typical COMMON SENSE”. We need to get past Democrat or Republican – get past Big Goverment / Small Goverment thinking – start looking at EFFECTIVE GOVERMENT.

  • goldenwaveforlife

    Its so sad that this is just the tip of the iceberg as he is about to let go more people that have done good jobs for the city all in the name of politics. Correct me if I am wrong, but didn’t he represent another city in the annexation trial? I love how he loses that trial and then lets go of the firm that beat him. There is no telling how many times he sued Tupelo through the years. Great job voters. Mark my words, it will probably take Tupelo 20 years to recover from the Shelton tenure. I suspect that we will see a lot of “friends” with no experience appointed to various positions.

  • Campground Charlie

    Mtichell McNutt or any comparable firm is going to have a number of specialists on staff, particularly in the diverse areas of real estate law, contract law, and employment/EEO disputes. No single attorney is going to be able to specialize in all those areas, and the city needs every one of those and probably more.

    Don’t forget to figure in the benefits that the in-house attorney will cost the city.

    As far as Markel Whittington’s remarks, I think he had better take that foot out of his mouth and issue an apology pretty quickly. City employees vote too, as do their families and friends. He just threatened 450 people, and I believe I see Jim Waide salivating.

    • Just Wondering

      Well said, Charlie.

  • goldenwaveforlife

    Guest, don’t close your eyes when he makes his appointment. As Campground pointed out, Mitchell McNutt is a large firm with numerous specialties and good people. Shelton will appoint some “friend” with absolutely no experience who will be in way over his or her head. It may “save” the city some money at first, but there is no telling how much it will cost the city to have an incompetent attorney represent it. I mean, we are not just talking about representing the city in all of the lawsuits against it, but this person will have to go to all the city meetings, handle all of the real estate mattters, handle all of the counsel matters. Jason Herring just resigned from Saltillo and I believe he was quoted as saying that he didn’t have enough time to cover everything himself. Saltillo is not nearly as busy as Tupelo. This is going to be a disaster.

    • 1941641

      goldenwave…: “This is going to be a disaster.”

      Go look in the mirror goldenwave… and you will see a disaster that has already happened!

  • 1941641

    “Tupelo-based law firm Mitchell, McNutt & Sams has contracted with the city for legal services for 36 of the last 40 years, dating back to former Mayor Clyde Whitaker’s administration.”

    Well, based on the years MM&S have been on the city’s payroll, I say it’s high time for another lawyer firm or lawyers to have a little of the pork. There are plenty of individual lawyers or lawyer associations in Tupelo that are just as capable of performing the city’s legal work as was MM&s.

    Mayor Shelton is not violating any laws or any rights MM&S has in their business association with the city. This is the City Of Tupelo here, not the US Supreme Court where justices have a lifetime job plus all the benefits. Seems to me I’m seeing the old ugly specter of Republicanism raising its head in Tupelo, MS.

    As for Councilman Whittington, I’m surprised that he has managed to hang on to his position as long as he has. He might just as well get over his unhappiness considering how wide open Tupelo politics has become and still evolving for the good of ALL citizens.

  • DoctorKevorkian

    HaHaHa. Campground Charlie and goldenwaveforlife, you two clowns will be looking for a new job soon. Your firm has been sucking on the Tupelo teet for far too long. And by the way, yes, while you did win a partial victory the second time around after the botched first annexation case, it is widely known that your firm screws up just as much or more for the city as it gets right, but they sure do continue to bill those hours. Not for long!

  • Guest

    For years we hear people complain that goverment is too big – it spends too much money. Yet when changes are made and before we know what will work people complain about the changes.
    Maybe some people just like to complain.

  • goldenwaveforlife

    1941641 and DoctorKevorkian– What has been the disaster? Tupelo has been one of the most efficient and well-run cities in the United States. Professors and colleges have actually studied the “Tupelo Way” and tried to teach other towns how to emulate Tupelo. The Tupelo annexation trial pointed out this fact. Unlike you yahoos, I have always taken an interest in my city and I have learned about its history and I keep up with the various lawsuits. I love how you presume that I am with Mitchell, McNutt. I am actually a client instead who has experienced terrible lawyers previous to using them. I pay their bills and I can appreciate the good work they provide. I recognize that all lawyers are not created equal. Kevorkian sounds like he is one of those lawyers that everyone regrets hiring. Mitchell, McNutt will be fine without the city business. That’s not what I am worried about. I am worried about the city without Mitchell, McNutt. Shelton needs a voice in his ear from someone who is not a “yes” man. Anyone he hires will be a “yes” man who probably got the job as a favor instead of it being based on their legal expertise.

    • DoctorKevorkian

      Ha. Yeah, I’m sure you really are a satisfied client who is simply a concerned citizen of Tupelo. You are not a briefcase-carrier for the firm who is in danger of losing his job. Sure…..

      Get back to billing those hours, son.

      • goldenwaveforlife

        Your name alone DoctorKevorkian shows your ignorance. No sensible person would use a murdering savage as their anonymous moniker on the daily journal. Its impossible to argue with ignorance — especially people who argue and don’t know the history of their own community or the relevance of the issues at hand. Go back to your underground cave or your sleezy law practice and I will get back to my business and just hope that the new administration wont keep Tupelo from recruiting and maintaining good businesses. You have probably never created a job in your entire life.

    • 1941641

      GoldenWave…: “What has been the disaster?”

      Why do you ask (GW)? After all, you introduced that question to the discussion yourself. Go back and read your post again to see what you wrote.

      Now, (GW…), It sounds to me a lot like you love MM&S so much you, assuming you are a human, have developed somewhat of a fetish for the law firm. Or, better yet, perhaps you are, in fact, one of MM&S’s truly dedicated Tupelo, MS Republican “Yes Men,” defending MM&S with all your heart and soul, and rhetoric, and muscle, and immense love.

      And, by the way, GW, Tupelo, despite it being an “All American City”, (even before Republican Mayor Whitaker), continues to maintain a very distinct “Dark Side”, a Republican creation in MY CITY!!

      In closing, and in rebuttal to your rant, GoldenWave…, I just want to say to: DR. K.,”it’s great to have your input in this community discussion, join us anytime you like!”

  • tupeloboyz

    Tupelo should have some minority employees in important positions like city attorney, city judge and police chief. Right now, most of Tupelo’s minority employees are in low level jobs. I hope that Mayor Shelton will consider hiring one of the many qualified African American attorneys in Tupelo for this important position.

    The MM&S firm that has had the city attorney position for the last forty years is made up of the old, white “blue blood” class that has run Tupelo from the County Club for the past 100 years or so. Former Mayor Reed worked for this firm back when he was a lawyer, so that shows you how MM&S is connected with the blue bloods around here.

    MM&S has made millions from Tupelo over the years. If some prior Mayor had created an in house legal department, there is no telling how much money the taxpayers would have saved.

    Mayor Shelton – I say out with the old and in with the new. The sooner the better. Tupelo will thank you a few years from now after they save huge amounts of money and have their own permanent top notch in house legal department.