(Editor's Note: The article was originally published February 14, 2011.)
It's not something that city governments normally do, but the city of Snellville is moving forward with choosing another city attorney -- just for the city council.
Council members said the rare move became necessary after Mayor Kelly Kautz appointed Stuart Oberman as the city attorney. Since then, Oberman's credentials and fees have been questioned, leading to an impasse in paying him. .
City Council is planning to bring in Webb, Tanner, Powell, Mertz & Wilson, LLP to represent them. That is the firm of former city attorney Tony Powell.
Mayor Pro Tem Tom Witts, who brought the measure before council, said he hopes the move is "very temporary, and that we get to a position where we can have one city attorney to represent the mayor and council."
He added, "That's our goal to get there, and I will work (to) build consensus so that we do get there."
Although the city has never had separate counsels, hiring another attorney for a government body is not unheard of. At the state and federal level, legislative and executive branches have separate counsels. Several cities in the United States -- including the cities of Tampa and Los Angeles -- have gone this route, as well.
"It's not what we would prefer, but it's something that we do if necessary," Witts said.
However, it does underscore the recent tension between the mayor and the majority of council members. Since Kautz's rise to mayor, a number of key decisions have been split on a 4-2 margin, with only Councilman Mike Sabbagh supporting her.
On Monday evening, the decision to hire additional counsel also garnered a 4-2 vote, with the same four council members -- Witts, Dave Emanuel, Diane Krause and Baobby Howard -- voting one way, and the mayor and Sabbagh voting the other way.
Witts said that the independent counsel would be used on a case-by-case basis, and that a change of the charter is not needed to install additional representation.
City Attorney Stuart Oberman disagreed, saying the charter gives sole discretion for choosing a city attorney to the mayor. Citing case law that was not immediately available, Oberman added that the city could be authorized not to pay for additional legal counsel for council members.
"Likewise, the mayor could not go out and appoint her own counsel ... if she was unhappy with the city council, so it cuts both ways," he said.
Indeed, the charter does grant powers to the mayor to choose a city attorney, and the city attorney is deemed a position that represents the city -- not individually the mayor nor the city council. However, the charter does mention that assistant city attorneys may be authorized.
In addition, the charter does not explicitly say that city council cannot seek additional representation. And, in some scholarly journals, researchers have suggested that separate may be the way to go in some cases.
"If it's proven that it is something that's prohibitive, we'll deal with it," Witts said.
Kautz, who voted against the item, said not only was the measure improper but that the council's choice -- Tony Powell -- serves as a council member in Lawrenceville and a representative for Snellville Tourism & Trade. Both of those positions represent conflicts of interest, she said.
Besides, Kautz added, the city hasn't paid its current attorney and does not have the money to pay for an additional one.