published Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

Chattanooga funds Councilman Jack Benson's defense in lawsuit


by Cliff Hightower
  • photo
    Chattanooga City Council member Jack Benson, Sr., speaks out during a 2010 council meeting to vote on a 37 cents per $100 of assessed value tax increase.
    Staff file photo

Taxpayers will be paying for the legal defense of Councilman Jack Benson.

The Chattanooga City Council voted 7-1 Tuesday night to hire an outside attorney to defend Benson in a lawsuit brought against him for his role in a rezoning case for a proposed International House of Pancakes. Benson abstained and Councilwoman Deborah Scott voted no.

City Attorney Mike McMahan said it is not unprecedented for the city to defend city employees.

"It's a very common problem," he said. "We have to defend police officers all the time." He said he could not recall when the city had to defend a sitting council member.

The lawsuit was filed after the council voted against rezoning a tract on Gunbarrel Road from business to commercial two months ago. Bassam Issa, owner of ANT Group and the person wanting to bring the IHOP to Gunbarrel Road, sued the city in Chancery Court to have the decision overturned.

He filed a second lawsuit against Benson for slander, saying the councilman told other council members that Issa tried to bribe him.

McMahan said the city would be responsible only for the legal costs. If the lawsuit is successful, Benson is responsible for paying any settlement.

Scott declined to comment after the meeting, saying it's a legal matter. Benson also declined to comment.

Council delays green lighting

In other action, City Council voted 9-0 to defer for a week a resolution to pay up to $6 million for streetlights with Global Green lighting. The company is seeking to put light-emitting diode lights, or LEDs, in downtown and along main roads.

But council members last week said they wanted to see prices for installing the lighting citywide. Councilwoman Sally Robinson said she is disappointed in the resolution.

"This is essentially the same thing we talked about last week."

Dan Johnson, chief of staff for Mayor Ron Littlefield, said the city would prepare a cost-benefit analysis.

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