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Riverdale to use tax dollars to fight suit

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon announced Friday that the city will "vehemently fight" a recent lawsuit filed against it, and its Downtown Development Authority, by Riverdale Councilman Rick Scoggins.

City officials said that, because Riverdale's insurance carrier will not cover the cost of answering the suit, the city's defense will be paid for out of the general fund.

In a press conference on Friday, the mayor and city officials said they have chosen outside council to represent the city against the lawsuit filed by Scoggins on Oct. 2, in Clayton County Superior Court.

The multi-action suit calls for the nullification of the city's contract with its Downtown Development Authority (DDA); for the DDA to return $735,750 to the city, which the city lent the agency to purchase two properties on Wilson Road on the city's behalf. The measure also demands that the city's "Cleanliness of Property, Sidewalks, and Rights-of-Way" ordinance be deemed unconstitutional, and it challenges the interpretation of the city's charter, regarding majority votes of the four-member city council.

"Mr. Scoggins has filed many ante litem notices against us, but this time, he chose to present us and serve us with a real lawsuit," Wynn-Dixon said. "Because of the nature of this lawsuit, and because [Scoggins] is a sitting council person, our insurance carrier will not cover this lawsuit ... It's like you are suing yourself.

"We are going to have to extrapolate money from youth programs, activities, funds that [are] for the betterment of the community," she said. "We're going to have to take citizens' tax monies to pay for what appears to be a frivolous lawsuit."

On Friday, Wynn-Dixon was unable to give an estimate of how much the city would have to spend in legal fees.

Riverdale City Manager Iris Jessie said that, in order to be "as objective as possible," the city has hired Atlanta Attorney Dana Maine to represent it and the Riverdale DDA as a group, rather than using the city's staff attorney, Deana Johnson. She said the city was served with the lawsuit on Oct. 13, and that it will file an answer within 30 days of the date of service.

Jessie said the lawsuit could have a devastating impact on the city's redevelopment efforts, particularly its plans to build a new park on Wilson Road. The park was needed to replace Travon Wilson Park on Church Street, which is currently the construction site for the city's major, multi-purpose development to be called Riverdale Promenade.

"The property was for the city to use for the construction of a new park," Jessie said. "The Downtown Development Authority has purchased the property, deeded it over to the city, and also returned some unused funds. If the remedy that is being sought is to undo all of that ... that would pretty much put us back at the beginning of the process."

Jessie said the lawsuit may also discourage citizens from volunteering their time to the city. She said members of the Riverdale DDA are all unpaid volunteers. The lawsuit "could have a very negative effect on people serving on boards and commissions," Jessie said. "These are reputable businessmen and women, who are donating their time for the advancement of the city. It would have a negative impact, if people felt, 'By my volunteering, that I am opening myself to other issues ... I might be sued.'"

Scoggins could not be reached for comment on Friday. Scoggins' attorney, Robert Mack, also could not be reached.

Maine, who will represent the city, did not have a specific date as to when she will answer the lawsuit on the city's behalf. However, she said she believes the law is on the city's side. "Based on what I can tell, so far, the facts as they are pled in the complaint do not state a claim against the defendant [the City of Riverdale]," Maine said. "The law supports that [purchasing properties on behalf of a city] is a proper purpose for the DDA. I think the city is in a very strong position to defend this action."

On Friday, Maine said she had not yet discussed with city officials the possibility of a counter-suit against Scoggins.