City attorney issue stirs controversy

ELKINS – A proposal to change the city’s legal representation led to heated discussion during Thursday’s Elkins City Council meeting.

The meeting agenda listed a resolution to reappoint the law firm of McNeer, Highland, McMunn & Varner LC as city attorney, but also a resolution to appoint the firm of Busch, Zurbuch & Thompson, PLLC as city prosecutor. In recent years, McNeer, Highland, McMunn & Varner have handled both city attorney and city prosecutor duties.

Councilman Bob Woolwine announced he would abstain from the voting because his wife is employed by Busch, Zurbuch & Thompson.

Councilwoman Marilyn Cuonzo questioned the need for two separate firms.

“What is the reasoning for this?” Cuonzo said. “Why are we doing this? Why do we need to separate these out? It is more expensive to do this.”

City attorney Gerri Roberts said her firm has handled all legal aspects for the city since April 2010.

“Our work was to cover everything,” she said. “That is what we are currently doing.”

Council members questioned Roberts about how much work was being completed on the prosecution side.

“Harry Smith is the person who generally covers city court,” Roberts said. “I could not give you the exact number of cases he handles a year. I don’t think I would be the person to answer that.”

She said the billing for municipal court work and for her city attorney work is separated and she could not give an estimate on the percentage of the split of the work.

Cuonzo said she could not see a reason to hire two firms.

Roberts said her firm did not apply for the city prosecutor position because she was not sure why it was being dealt with differently this year.

“I sent my usual letter with what I had been doing previously,” Roberts said.

Councilman Carmen Metheny asked where the recommendation to split the legal duties originated. Several council members said the recommendation came from Council’s Personnel Committee.

Mayor Van Broughton reminded council members the positions needed to be filled by April 1.

Several council members asked to be shown a reason why two legal firms were needed.

“We have a city attorney who is very effective,” Cuonzo said. “She is very involved in the goings-on in the city and is very versed in this law. If I had questions about her ability, then I would say ‘yeah.’ But there are none.”

“There is no problem with her,” Woolwine said. “There was a problem downstairs. There was concern in the police department and a lot of cases had to be carried over because of no response. I don’t want to put (Acting Police Chief) Lt. Richards on the spot but he could address this. I know (Councilman) Mark Scott did a lot of research and had a lot of stack of cases that weren’t handled properly on a timely basis.”

Scott, the Personnel Committee chairman, was not present at Thursday’s meeting.

At that point, Roberts excused herself and left council chambers.

Councilwoman Nancy Bross-Fregonara asked if it was appropriate to be talking about the matter in open session.

“Isn’t this a personnel issue?” she said,

Broughton then banged his gavel and said the meeting needed to be recessed. Broughton and City Clerk Sutton Stokes left council chambers. A few moments later, Broughton, Stokes and Roberts reentered.

Broughton brought the meeting back to order, and a motion was made to address the item during a special budget meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Speaking to The Inter-Mountain after Thursday’s meeting, Broughton said the resolutions to split the city’s legal duties between two law firms came at the suggestion of the Personnel Committee. However, the reasoning behind the suggestion was never fully explained to City Council, Broughton said. The mayor added that if Scott had been present at Thursday’s meeting he would likely have detailed the logic behind the suggestion.

Broughton said he recessed the meeting to check on Roberts and “make sure she was OK.”

The mayor added that he was unsure what Woolwine meant by “a problem downstairs,” and could not provide any further details on the situation.

At the beginning of Thursday’s meeting, City Council and Broughton went into executive session for 40 minutes. The agenda said the session would address a “personnel matter in Municipal Court.” Municipal Judge Tom Pritt also took part in the executive session, as did Roberts.

A special called City Council meeting dealing with the city budget will be Monday at 6 p.m.