Opinion



No rubber stamp when selecting a city attorney

The appointment of a city attorney is one of only two decisions the Cookeville City Council makes that define how government operates. The members of the council should fulfill their responsibilities to voters who expect them to actually do the math

By GEOFF DAVIDIAN

Putnam Pit editor

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (July 27, 2003) – Should the City Council on Thursday retain part-time City Attorney Thomas M. (T. Michael) “Mike” O’Mara for another term at between $125 and $150 an hour?

 

The question is not just whether Mr. O’Mara has performed well enough to deserve the city’s trust for another couple of years. It is also whether the Shipley-Womack government actually evaluates the issues it votes on, or whether the City Council is just a rubber stamp. Deciding whether Mr. O’Mara should be retained as a part-time city attorney during rough economic times requires answers to two questions: Has Mr. O'Mara's legal opinion proven to be beneficial to the city, and is there someone competent and willing who can provide equal or better legal counsel for less money than Mr. O'Mara? 

 

To answer the question intelligently, members of the City Council must compare Mr. O’Mara’s performance to a baseline or standard that reasonable people will agree constitutes the acceptable minimum.

 

Then, by further inquiring whether others with the same or greater necessary and essential qualities will do the work as well as Mr. O’Mara, but at less cost, the value of Mr. O'Mara's public service can be determined objectively.

 

In that sense, the process of deciding is more important than the person selected, because by excluding undesirable qualities or factors, all candidates who meet the standard are acceptable. It is especially important that the correct decision be made in appointing a city attorney because not just the amount of salary but consequential litigation costs must be figured into the equation. It would not be in the public interest to assume that a public official is entitled to reappointment by virtue of simply having the job. Otherwise, why go through the exercise of voting at all?

Thomas M. (T. Michael) "Mike" O'Mara

Cookeville City Attorney
Thomas M. (T. Michael) “Mike” O’Mara

 

 

Certainly, the reason there is a requirement that the city council appoint a public official is meant to give those council members the opportunity to exercise the power they sought office to obtain. This is such a moment. 

In a weak council government such as Cookeville’s there are just two decisions the governing body must make that will set the tone for all future government activity – who should run the city as city manager, and who should provide the legal counsel to keep the course true? On Thursday, it will make one of those decisions from which future consequences will unfold.

 

So, what independent actions have the members of the Shipley-Womack government taken to prepare themselves for Thursday’s vote on retaining Mr. O’Mara?

 

Well, surely they have looked at the performance evaluation mandated by Chapter 13, Section 1 of the Cookeville policy and procedures manual, which says that “all regular full-time and regular part-time employees” will be evaluated “on a regularly scheduled basis as an employee development activity intended to assist and motivate employees to attain their maximum potential.”

 

Once the members of the council have looked at the performance evaluations for each of Mr. O’Mara’s past eight years of service to his community, as mandated by Chapter 13, Section 1 of the manual, the members of the council intending to be responsible in their positions would certainly look at whether the dollars spent over the past eight years for a part-time city attorney bought more bang for the buck than if the city had a full-time attorney on staff 40 hours a week.

 

As it is, Mr. O’Mara charges the city $125 an hour and the Cookeville Regional Medical Center $150 an hour for some tasks a paralegal could do; Mr. O’Mara is contacted whenever some people ask for public records; department heads, council members and others call the city attorney at will, with no apparent requirement for approval before running up the tab.

 

The council should therefore review its notes on the research it has done independent of Mr. O’Mara and Mr. Shipley to be clear on whether a full-time city attorney making $40,000 or $75,000 a year would be a better value than continuing a by-the-hour arrangement.

 

Then after reviewing Mr. O’Mara’s annual performance evaluations and after going over the study on the advisability of continuing with a part-time city attorney, the members of a council making this decision would want to look at their notes outlining what lawsuits are pending against the city and consider whether any of them was avoidable.

 

A member of the city council deciding who should serve the public on their behalf would want to be certain that there was no conflict by which the city attorney’s income was increased by lawsuits brought because of that attorney’s advice. And a vigilant council member would want to ensure that the city attorney has no interest other than giving the best legal advice that is in the interests of justice and the long term interest of the city, rather than just covering for his mistakes and mistakes of other members of the Shipley-Womack bureaucracy.

 

For example, if a full-time city attorney erred in a matter, that attorney, working on salary, would have to work more as a result of the error but would receive the same pay. Is that also true of a part-time city attorney? Or does the part-time city attorney make more money by causing the city trouble than he would by giving good advice? Why not call Mr. O’Mara Wednesday afternoon and ask him so the answer to this question is clear before any decision is made? Why not ask Mr. O’Mara and Mr. Shipley to meet on Wednesday afternoon to discuss whether Mr. O’Mara is independent of Mr. Shipley in all areas in which Mr. O’Mara’s legal advice is sought or paid for?

 

After all, when these council members asked voters to give them power, the voters expected in return that certain important work would be done.

 

The vote on Thursday will reveal whether there is a real city council, or whether the members responsible for the city’s well being are a rubber stamp and bring no added value to the process.

 

The governing body should not leave it to Mr. Shipley and Mr. O’Mara to decide whether Mr. O’Mara should be retained. The council should demand complete disclosure and should evaluate the data themselves, individually and in public.

 

And if they have not evaluated it, if the data does not exist, if the work has not been done, then the council members bear the responsibility for what happens in the future, not Mr. O’Mara.

 

By Thursday's vote, the council proves that someone is doing the people's work.

 

Does the city need a part-time city attorney at $125 or $150 an hour when a full-time city attorney could go to the staff meetings, attend council meetings and condemn land, just like Mr. O’Mara, and who could also do collection work for the Cookeville Regional Medical Center, proactively work with the council to avoid lawsuits and reduce the cost to taxpayers by $50,000 a year in hourly salary.

 

If this work, this evaluation, this process is complete, the council will make an intelligent, informed decision.

 

If the members have not reviewed the mandated annual performance evaluation, have not done a cost study, have not reviewed Mr. O’Mara’s bills, have not met with Mr. O’Mara and Mr. Shipley to discuss conflicts of interest, have not inquired with state agencies about possible future embarrassments, this council should not vote on retaining Mr. O’Mara but revisit the needs and long-term interests of the city.