By Kathy Jefcoats
JONESBORO — Members of Forest Park City Council were within their rights last month to fire their attorneys, ruled a Clayton County Superior Court judge.
Robert Mack and Joe Harris were terminated during a May 6 meeting. They filed suit May 20 and Chief Judge Deborah Benefield held a hearing on the issue June 3. Mack and Harris had represented the city since 2006, being re-appointed every January.
The attorneys argued that they should be considered appointed officers under the city charter and could only be terminated for cause, after an investigative hearing and by a 5-0 vote. The city disagreed.
Benefield ruled that the relationship between the city and its attorneys is not unlike an individual who retains counsel and forms a traditional attorney-client relationship.
"The client controls when to use the services of an attorney, and Georgia has recognized the unique relationship between a lawyer and a client," stated the ruling.
Benefield pointed out that "The right to terminate is implied by public policy because of the peculiar relationship between attorney and client. The client must be free to end the relationship whenever 'he ceases to have absolute confidence in either the integrity or the judgment or the capacity of the attorney,'"
Benefield strengthened her position through Supreme Court rulings.
"Moreover, the Supreme Court has noted that appointed attorneys are employed at will," the ruling stated. Referencing a Chatham County case, Benefield noted, "A county attorney is an appointed public official who serves at the pleasure of the governing body."
What muddied the waters in the Forest Park case is the city charter. Benefield pointed out that the document doesn't expressly provide for the removal of the city attorney.
"Other appointed officers elsewhere in the charter each are subject to separate removal provisions apart from (Section 5.16)," her ruling noted. "A client has an absolute right to terminate representation. This court finds that a city attorney is not an 'other appointed officer' within the meaning of 5.16 (a) and therefore is not subject to that sections' removal restrictions."
The May 6 termination created a firestorm among residents who wanted to know why it was done the way it was. Councilwoman Latresa Akins asked to add an agenda item.
"I would like to add item '4a' to reconsider the city attorneys," said Akins. "We've been discussing change, we have a new mayor and I think we should give you the tools to work with. I'd like to ask council to consider other firms."
The announcement stunned the chamber audience and Mayor Pro Tem Linda Lord, who asked for time to discuss the issue. Her request went unheeded by the mayor who called for a motion, a second and a vote while she continued to protest. Lord cast the sole dissenting vote.
During that same meeting, the council voted to appoint Fincher, Denmark, Williams and Minnifield as city attorneys.