The Tupelo City Council’s compromise on hiring an internal lawyer and ending exclusive single-firm contract work makes possible a precise, quantifiable measure of the in-house counsel’s performance and costs compared to whatever other external legal contract work is performed, regardless of the firm.
The decision, part of the 5-2 approval of the city’s 2013-2014 budget, which starts Oct. 1, will replace, at least for the budget year, a full contract with a law firm. Mitchell, McNutt & Sams had the contract for 36 of the past 40 years.
Mayor Jason Shelton sought the in-house counsel, plus a contract for a limited amount of work by Mitchell, NcNutt, as the firm is generally known. That contract apparently remains under negotiation.
The compromise grew from a good-faith effort within the council to find enough common ground to approve the budget despite sharp disagreement before the vote on the internal lawyer proposal. Working through disagreements is usually possible when open minds approach important issues.
Shelton, who is in his first term as a public officeholder, plans to hire an in-house lawyer for $90,000 to do the bulk of the city’s legal work. Shelton has said the city can save money taking that road. The city has paid Mitchell, McNutt an average of $277,328 per year from 2002 to 2013.
Chief Financial Officer Lynn Norris, specified as the auditor for comparing costs and expenditures, including overhead, for the in-house attorney and any contract attorneys, said a $90,000 salary will total $116,000 to $117,000, with benefits. A clerical position to support the in-house counsel, Norris said Wednesday afternoon, would amount to approximately $30,000, plus benefits, but the plan is for that to be a transfer of a position already in the budget. The expenses of supplying the operation, utilities and other overhead have not been factored into figures so far publicly discussed, but the mayor has said they will come out of his office’s budget.
Shelton has said he believes the savings will amount to $100,000 per year.
Only a comprehensive accounting of the new position’s expenses will reveal the accuracy of Shelton’s prediction.
Norris outlined a strong plan to monitor the new position, any other legal work, and the city’s overall budget expenses:
• Quarterly reports to the council will provide the current status of the legal department and all other budgeted expenses
• A working budget business session is anticipated with the City Council, Shelton and the financial services staff when the quarterly reports are delivered, and information will reveal expenditures to that date in every category.
Debate and disagreement are part of the political routine, but airing differences makes governance more transparent. That the mayor and council were able to come together on a compromise will keep a potential budget stalemate from blocking progress in other critical areas.