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St. Marys Legal Fees Fuel Debate; Councilman Says Costs Can Be Reduced with Careful Planning

Article excerpt

Byline: GORDON JACKSON

ST. MARYS - The cost of controversy is expensive for St. Marys taxpayers.

Since Jan. 1, the city has paid $72,096.82 in legal fees, records show. Neighboring Kingsland, which has nearly the same number of residents, has paid $6,767.75.

Councilman Sidney Howell blames the costs on self-imposed problems created by two opposing factions on the City Council. Howell and Greg Bird have disagreed with council members Deborah Hase, Chuck Trader, John Morrissey and Keith Post on issues that have required legal opinions by former city attorney Alex Atwood, who resigned this year, and his replacement Gary Moore.

"These legal fees are out of control," Howell said. "It's because of a dysfunctional council."

Howell cited disagreements about relocating the municipal airport, firing tourism director Janet Brinko and buying a waterfront tract in June without public input for contributing to the costs. And legal fees should continue to mount because rights of way still must be acquired in the Gaines Davis subdivision for the installation of water lines. Residents there have waited more than a decade for city water.

Morrissey said legal opinions for proposed majority elections and negotiating to restructure a bond agreement with a developer trying to buy the Cumberland Harbour residential community also resulted in some of the costs.

"To understand it better, you have to look at the bills," he said. "We've had quite a bit of activity."

Bird said he believes council members could reduce legal fees with more effort of their own.

"We've got a city charter and an elected officials' handbook to guide our actions," he said. "We're a member of the Georgia Municipal Association and we're already paying for their services."

Bird questioned how Kingsland, a city with a comparable population, can hold its legal fees to a fraction of St. Marys' cost.

Kingsland City Manager Gwen Mungin said legal fees are low because, unlike in St. Marys, the city attorney does not attend most council meetings. …