The City Council fight over the role of the City Attorney's Office continued last week and took a new turn when one resident said she will collect signatures to make the position an elected post.
In one move, council President Keith King asked the council to consider a resolution allowing it to hire an outside attorney for advice on budget issues.
King wants to find out if the council has legislative authority to make changes to the city's budget midyear. He wasn't satisfied with the attorney's recent response to that question.
In July, City Attorney Wynetta Massey told the council that midyear budget changes can be recommended by the mayor and the council can consider the changes, like it did in recent months when the council moved $2 million from its reserve fund to pay for pothole repairs and $1.1 million from other projects to upgrade the Information Technology department at the mayor's request.
But the council cannot vote on their recommended changes.
"This balance of powers is consistent with the Council-Mayor form of government adopted by the voters in November 2010," Massey wrote in the July memo.
King wants a second opinion. He told Massey that she has deliberately misinterpreted the city's charter.
"I'm not dropping this," said a defiant King.
It's one of many issues the previous and current councils have had with the City Attorney's Office and its interpretation of the city's charter in the wake of a new form of government.
The city charter says the city attorney is the legal adviser of the mayor, council, commissions and department heads. It also says the City Council can hire an outside attorney to assist the city attorney.
Councilman Don Knight agrees that the council needs to hire an outside attorney for issues when the legislative and executive branches clash. The City Attorney is hired and fired by the mayor, which creates a conflict, Knight said.
"Every single opinion on separation of powers has always gone to the executive branch," he said.
In a second, related move, Kanda Calef, Business Chamber of Southern Colorado government affairs officer, said the most unbiased solution would be to elect the city attorney. She intends to circulate a petition to get a question on the April ballot asking residents to do just that.
Calef has received approval from the city's title board, which reviews the language a citizen wants to circulate on a petition. She expects to start her petition drive in September.
"An elected city attorney would represent the citizens' and taxpayers' best interests, not the agenda of a political office," Calef said. "If we don't like how they represent us, we fire them at the next election."
Almost from the moment six new council members were seated in April 2013, the city attorney has been an issue of concern. The former council and the new council have said that the city attorney's office, under the direction of former City Attorney Chris Melcher, gave the council advice that slanted toward the mayor's position. Melcher resigned at the end of 2013 and Massey was appointed city attorney in January.
But council members say they still have had trouble getting legal advice on issues of eminent domain and budget decisions. The council also has said that the City Attorney's Office has released opinions to the executive branch before giving it to the council, when council had asked for the advice.
In September, the council voted to set aside $35,000 to hire an attorney for advice on stormwater issues. Massey said that issue was different because none of the 28 attorneys inside the City Attorney's Office had expertise on issues of stormwater and governance. The budget issue, however, is something on which she has advised the council and does not need an outside legal expert.
Councilman Joel Miller said the mayor has hired outside legal counsel for a number of reasons, including for the City for Champions. Records show the city has spent $34,824.11 to hire the firm Hogan Lovells for advice on the City for Champions project. Miller said the council ought to have the same leeway for legal advice. "Every time we want outside counsel there is hemming and hawing over why we can't do it," Miller said.
King will ask the council to vote on his proposed resolution at the Sept. 9 meeting.
Contact Monica Mendoza: 636-0187