TUPELO – The city of Tupelo will likely have a new legal team representing the local government on Oct. 1.
Whether or not the Tupelo City Council supports Mayor Jason Shelton’s request for an in-house city attorney, the law firm that has contracted with the city’s legal work for 36 of the last 40 years will have a diminished role.
Facing a scenario where he won’t have a majority votes on the City Council to support creating an in-house attorney, Shelton confirmed to the Daily Journal this morning that he will not seek the law firm Mitchell, McNutt and Sams as the city’s lead firm representing the city if the City Council rejects his proposal for a city attorney.
“I will seek out a more cost-effective law firm,” said Shelton, an attorney. “I will ask the council to put the interests of the taxpayers ahead of a single law firm making millions of dollars off the taxpayers’ dime.”
One of the few major changes in the proposed fiscal year 2014 budget from the current budget is ending the longstanding contract with Mitchell, McNutt and Sams. Shelton proposed creating a $90,000-a-year city attorney position and proposing a $60,000 contract to the law firm for overflow legal services and pending cases where using a new attorney would adversely impact the city.
The city has paid $300,000 to $400,000 annually in recent years to the law firm for legal services, not including costs related to city’s court battle in the recent annexation approved in 2012. Shelton anticipates the in-house attorney position saving the city $100,000 annually.
Currently, three City Council members – Markel Whittington of Ward 1, Buddy Palmer of Ward 5 and Mike Bryan of Ward 6 – have said they plan to vote against creating the attorney position. Council members Nettie Davis of Ward 4 and Jim Newell of Ward 3 plan to support the position, while Lynn Bryan of Ward 2 has said he may support it. Willie Jennings of Ward 7 has not commented.
Council members opposed to the in-house city attorney have different reasons for their position. Whittington said he opposes increasing city personnel costs, while Palmer said he hasn’t received enough information to support the change.
Whittington said hiring city employees for an in-house legal department currently outsourced would likely lead to increased personnel costs beyond the single attorney that Shelton proposed.
“Before long, we’ll have a secretary, a paralegal and a junior attorney,” Whittington said. “I’m not sure that’s in the best interests of the taxpayers.”
Shelton proposes a current employee with the city serving as the city attorney’s secretary, if approved. No other new positions have been proposed beyond the attorney position.
The City Council will meet today at 4:30 to continue to discuss the budget, legally required to be approved by Sept. 15.