This is what happens when lawyers get their hands on government
On Thursday, April 30, Savannah's City Attorney took the Council he advises to school on the expenditures of the Legal Department created by Mayor Edna Jackson at the outset of her administration. For those unaware, our Legal Department consists of City Attorney Brooks Stillwell, Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Herman, and two legal assistants. Cases are farmed out to other law firms depending on the nature of the case. Stillwell's predecessor, Jimmy Blackburn, outsourced all legal work to his own firm over a period of 40 years, creating the atmosphere where it was possible for Blackburn to set legal fees and authorize payment without going through Council and the City Manager, resulting in the scandal wherein more than $1 million alone has been paid to outside counsel shepherding the Whitaker Street Garage debacle.
This is what happens when lawyers get their hands on government: no matter what level of government-- municipal, county, state or federal-- lawyers are empowered to manipulate the system they created, and they learn how to do it in law school. It just so happens that I also have a Juris Doctor degree. I distinctly remember that on the first day of class that the dean of the school summed up the practice of law saying, "Once a lawyer gets involved in a case, it will automatically get worse before it gets better and will last as long as the client has the ability to pay for representation." And in the case of a City's Legal Department, the legal road goes on forever and at great expense to the taxpayer.
Brooks Stillwell's presentation to Council was a troubling thing to hear-- defensive at best-- and a plea for more help. But he failed to provide the People with accurate figures on expenditures both current and for prior years under his leadership, gave no details on just how many cases he handles personally as opposed to how many he farms out, or how compensation is agreed upon.
The management of Edna Jackson's Legal Department gets worse: Stillwell begs for a third City Attorney to handle litigation, admitting that he sees himself more as an "advisor" than "litigator" and spends much of his time rendering legal opinions to Council, the City Manager and planners. Meanwhile, as the head of the Legal Department, Stillwell is obligated to report to a Council that has no idea how he manages his department, their questions often unanswered. This kind of situation is to be expected when the City Attorney is not only the smartest guy in the room, he was also an Alderman from 1974-91, serving as Mayor Pro Tem his last two years on council. All things being even, there is one very good reason why Brooks Stillwell is the City Attorney instead of Mayor, and the answer lies in the advice given to me by the dean of my law school on day one: money and the ability of the client to pay fees. The practice of law is the ultimate backstage pass that puts the City Attorney in the middle of everything and at such levels that he can profit coming and going. Worse, this situation is nearly impossible to oversee at every level. In the end, the lawyers end up with all the money and only another lawyer can figure out how it happened.
Our present Mayor instituted a Legal Department and hired on one of the most prominent lawyers from Savannah's biggest law firm-- with built-in conflicts of interests from the beginning-- and a former Alderman at that. Thus, Brooks Stillwell has more power than his employer, more brains than his managers, and makes far more money without having to answer to constituents. Thus, on the same day that our infamous clowncil unanimously approved a resolution opposing offshore drilling and seismic testing and celebrated their bold initiative, they sat there in bewildered silence as the City Attorney tried to explain away how Savannah's legal community has been drilling for gold under the gold dome for years and years and years...
Friends, the only solution for what ails our Council is to vote in Aldermen who know how to run the city, employ a City Manager who knows how to manage the city, hire a City Attorney who can represent the city without conflict, and elect a Mayor with the ability to oversee all concerned. Let each be the best talent that can be found for their job, and let each do their job to the best of their ability with checks and balances at every level. That's how a city is governed effectively. Vote Murray4Mayor and let's fix this mess.