Add this lesson to that list:
When selecting a city attorney, choose one who will dispense tough, level-headed legal advice and urge council members to avoid needless lawsuits, frivolous inquiries and unmanageable legal fees.
In the spirit of change that has swept over City Hall, City Manager Don Hoyt — who is retiring later this year — has decided to end Cleo Thomas’ tenure as city attorney. It is a good move, if only from the aspect of giving Mayor Vaughn Stewart’s term a stronger breath of fresh air.
Thomas’ removal, however, gives Anniston a chance to seek an attorney who is more than a legal representative of the city. Anniston needs a city attorney who will embrace dispensing legal advice the mayor and council need to hear — learned advice that, on occasion, may contradict the council’s wishes.
In other words, Anniston needs an attorney that looks after the city and, as much as he or she can, guides the council and staff away from wastes of time.
How much better Anniston would have fared under the leadership of former Mayor Gene Robinson had someone stopped the Grand Inquisition before it began. Former Councilman Ben Little, who led the quest to uncover alleged corruption in the city’s government and police department, was a hard politician to thwart. His default was to ignore advice and charge ahead, full-speed.
Nevertheless, that is an advisory role atop the list of city attorney duties — a role that requires the city’s top legal representative to convince the council of the absurdity of a doomed-from-the-start inquiry.
Sadly, Anniston’s story took a different route. The Grand Inquiry was a disaster; it divided city staff against city government; and it cost thousands of dollars that could have been spent elsewhere. Thomas earned slightly less than $400,000 from Anniston during his time as city attorney (2009 to now). In the 12-month period that included the inquiry, Thomas’ pay was $144,000.
It’s a question we must ask: How many more police officer salaries could Anniston afford had so much money not been spent on legal fees and the Grand Inquisition? In legal circles, truth is golden, even if it hurts.