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Riverdale straining legal fees budget

By Billy Corriher

Personnel issues are costing Riverdale taxpayers big time.

In the first two months of the year the city has spent three times what it spent during the same time last year in legal fees.

"At some point in time, (the high attorney fees) are going to come back up and bite us," said Riverdale Council member Rick Scoggins. "The attorney for the city is trying to take as much money from the city as it can."

In January, the city council approved hiring a new city attorney, Veronica Jones with Powell, Goldstein, Frazer, & Murphy in Atlanta. Jones charges $236 per hour while former attorney Don Foster, who had been the city attorney for more than 10 years, charged $100 per hour.

Conflict that arose between Mayor Phaedra Graham, who was elected in 2003, and former City Manager Billy Beckett, who will resign on April 23, led to Jones' hiring.

"We felt as though (Beckett's departure) was a problem, and we wanted to promote diversity," said Council member Wanda Wallace. Jones is black. Foster was white.

All members of the council supported the move except Scoggins, who says Jones is not well versed in municipal law which is costing the city additional fees.

But Jones said her law firm is qualified to handle the city's affairs.

"I think the city of Riverdale is being more than adequately represented with qualified and skilled lawyers," Jones said. "The city has the benefit of not only my expertise but the entire firm."

So far, Jones has billed the city for $25,945 for 109 hours of work. In the same time frame last year, Foster had billed for 80 hours of work totaling $8,360.

There is $90,000 budgeted for attorney fees in Riverdale's budget this year.

That means that Riverdale set aside about $7,500 a month for legal fees but in February alone spent about $22,600. The March bill is not available. There is also all of April, May and June left in the fiscal year.

Forest Park, a neighboring city with 21,400 people compared to Riverdale's 12,400, has $75,000 allotted this year, and their attorney charges $125 per hour, said city Finance Director Mike Blandenburg.

Wallace said one of the main causes for the higher fees was Graham's request that Beckett conduct city business through her, which goes against the city charter.

"We had to get legal recommendations on what (Graham) is doing," she said. "She (Graham) is costing the city money."

Graham could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Once Beckett announced his resignation, Wallace said, legal fees increased because business was conducted through Jones who also was asked to attend council meetings. Wallace also claims that Jones has had to deal with Graham's vetoes of some council decisions, a lawsuit from a local entrepreneur, and complaints of racial discrimination in the police department and the ensuing resignation of Chief Mike Edwards.

"It's been chaos," she said. "(Former Mayor) Mary Lee did not have to go through these problems."

Lee, who served as mayor for 13 years, said the amount of money the city is paying for the attorney's services is too much.

"These were good people who worked with the city," she said. "(The council members) are making bad decisions."