published Thursday, June 13th, 2013

East Ridge council to vote on attorney

East Ridge Mayor Brent Lambert
East Ridge Mayor Brent Lambert
Photo by Alyson Wright /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The East Ridge City Council expects to offer Hal North its full-time city attorney job tonight, but council members aren't sure whether he will take it.

North, the city's interim attorney, said Wednesday he has not decided what he will do if two councilmen vote against his appointment, and everyone involved believes that will happen. North has said in the past that the unanimous support of the council is important.

North's agreement with East Ridge ends June 30. Should he become the full-time attorney, he said he will do so without a contract. The city can fire him at any point, and he can leave at any point. Either way, he won't receive a severance package.

Mayor Brent Lambert and Councilman Larry Sewell said earlier this week that they will vote against dropping the "interim" label from North's title. Both men said that North should have to apply for the full-time job, just like anyone else interested.

The city hired North in December at the suggestion of Councilman Marc Gravitt, who has known North for about 20 years. At the time, Lambert said, he, Sewell and Councilman Denny Manning had never even spoken with North.

But the council just fired former attorney John Anderson, and Lambert and Sewell said this week that they needed a replacement to step in immediately.

People often sue cities, and you need someone ready to offer a defense.

Lambert said the hiring of North felt like a "back-room deal," and the council needs to be more transparent. The city may keep North full-time, Lambert said, but not before accepting other applications.

Both Lambert and Sewell think North has done a fine job the last six months, though neither talks with him often.

"He knows where his main support is coming from on the council," Lambert said. "He understands that. He's a smart guy. I think he's a good attorney. I do. But I felt like I was kept more in the loop previously."

North said he doesn't avoid Lambert and Sewell. He talks with them whenever needed.

"I've never heard a complaint from them," North said. "I think this is all part of a plan where they want to bring John Anderson back."

And then there is the issue of money. Before the council voted to fire Anderson in December, some complained that the city paid him too much.

Anderson earned $90,000 per year from East Ridge, plus another $120 per hour for litigation and "special projects outside the scope of normal business." In the 2009-10 fiscal year, according to Times Free Press archives, East Ridge paid Anderson $141,000. The next year, the city paid him $158,000.

During a special meeting in February 2011, Councilmen Jim Bethune and Denny Manning told Anderson the attorney should make no more than $90,000 per year.

That's the pay scale the council awarded North in December when he became the interim attorney. Bethune, Gravitt and Manning then voted in March to raise North's rate to $10,000 per month -- or $120,000 per year.

If North becomes the full-time attorney tonight, he will make that same amount.

"I'm wondering why opinions have changed so much," Lambert said. "If $90,000 was the appropriate rate as recently as December of last year, why is $120,000 the appropriate rate now?"

Contact Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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