MORROW The Morrow City Council is shelling out nearly $12,500 for legal fees to two law firms, although one of those firms was never legally hired by the city.
The council voted to spend $3,401.25 on legal services provided by The Balch Law Group, PC Tuesday — even though council members haven’t publicly voted to hire the law firm. City manager Jeff Eady told city council Balch’s invoice was for work the firm did when it “handled the last executive session questions for the council.”
Simultaneously, the council also voted to spend $9,091.02 on services provided by Henderson & Hundley, PC, which has provided Morrow with city attorney Laurel Henderson for years — until she tendered her resignation two weeks ago. That’s a total payment of 12,492.27.
The payment for services provided by The Balch Law Group seemingly contradicts a written statement councilwoman Jeanell Bridges provided to Clayton News Daily about an attorney from the law firm, Chris Balch, in an e-mail dated Nov. 16. Bridges, the mayor pro-tem for Morrow, was asked about Balch because he provided legal advice to the council on the legality of an executive session Nov. 13.
“Mr. Balch has not been retained,” Bridges said. “The council felt that it was in our best interest to seek another legal opinion to advise us on the matter at hand.”
Henderson complained in her resignation letter that the council had stopped consulting her on legal matters. In fact, she said she had “routinely been kept in the dark as to important legal issues while staff and some elected officials consulted outside counsel.”
She never specifically named The Balch Law Group as that outside counsel. During the Nov. 13 meeting, Henderson sat quietly in the back of the council’s meeting chambers while council members consulted Balch on the legality of an executive session held to deal with a grievance filed against Mayor Joseph J.B. Burke Nov. 5.
The grievance was filed following critical comments Burke made about Morrow Planning and Economic Development Director Michael McLaughlin during a council meeting Oct. 23. The retaining of Balch was not publicly discussed or voted on by the council at meetings held Nov. 5 and Nov. 13. No other council meetings have been held since the incident, which prompted the grievance against the mayor.
Henderson said, in her resignation letter, she and the council agreed at the beginning of the year that “if outside council were warranted, I would be the chief contact for any such person.”
The letter indicates Henderson was not involved in the retaining of The Balch Law Group.
City Clerk Evyonne Browning told the council The Balch Law Group invoices stemmed from questions of whether the council violated the state's Open Meetings Act during the Nov. 5 executive session.
"This is from when we had the Balch law firm give an opinion on the executive session procedures," she said.
Burke said he was concerned that the council chose to use an outside law firm to handle the issue. "I just don't understand why we would have an outside law firm handle this, rather than use our city attorney," he said.