Riverdale hopes lawsuits don't overreach budget

By Justin Boron

Riverdale's legal expenditures aren't outpacing excess the city has faced in past years as it fought through a spate of personnel conflicts. But new lawsuits filed recently could place a heavy burden on the city as it emerges from the woes of a tight budget.

Two months into this fiscal year, the city has spent 10.7 percent of its $120,000 budget for legal costs, according to a response to an open records request. Last fiscal year, it spent more than double the same budget amount.

At the end of July, the city was hit with a pair of discrimination lawsuits. In one, a former police officer accuses that the city of terminating him last year because he has HIV. The city has categorically denied all the allegations in the suit.

In another suit, a current police officer asks for $2 million in damages for race-based retaliation. Part of the retaliation, he says stems from comments he made in 2004 to the media about the practice of discrimination in the police department.

However, at least two council members are being optimistic.

"I'm hoping that we come under budget," said Councilman Rick Scoggins.

He admitted that the new lawsuits could push the amount beyond what was projected.

But Scoggins also said he wasn't counting on a worse-case scenario.

"We could get to the point where somebody drops the lawsuit," he said.

Council member Michelle Bruce said she also hoped that the two lawsuits would not become the fiasco in 2004 that led to the resignation of the city's police chief.

"I'm not going to go through what I did last year with these people," she said.

The city has shuffled attorneys in the past two years trying to get a hold on costs.

In January 2004, the council chose Veronica Jones with Powell, Goldstein, Frazer, & Murphy in Atlanta. Jones charged $236 per hour while the city's attorney before that who had been the city attorney for more than 10 years, charged $100 per hour. At the time, one council member said the choice was made for the sake of diversity. Jones is black.

This year, a divided council elected to switch again choosing Deana Johnson from Cruser and Mitchell. Johnson is white.

Since Johnson's firm was hired in January, the city has spent $95,557, according to the open records response.