After more than four months of searching, Asheville City Council has yet to find a permanent replacement for former City Attorney Robin Currin. At Council’s Jan. 22 meeting, Mayor Esther Manheimer said the city would readvertise the position — after she and her colleagues unanimously approved an additional $300,000 for outside legal services.
In a staff report issued before the meeting, Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball explained that an additional $200,000 was necessary to retain interim City Attorney Sabrina Rockoff and her colleagues with local firm McGuire, Wood & Bissette “due to the delay in hiring a new city attorney.” The remaining $100,000, Ball wrote, was required for “other outside legal service expenses that have exceeded initial estimates.”
Ball did not specify the recipients or purposes of those outside legal expenses in the staff report, and she did not respond to a request for comment by press time. However, Manheimer suggested at the meeting that some of the money will pay for guidance on how Asheville should respond to the City Council election districting imposed by Raleigh lawmakers last June.
“Rockoff is not an expert in election law; it’s sort of a specialty area of law,” Manheimer said. “But there are some attorneys in the state that are experts in this area, and we’ve asked her to reach out to some to advise us about what our options are.”
Those comments came after several residents, including recent Council candidate Kim Roney, called for the city to fight the districting plan. In a 2017 referendum, 75 percent of Asheville voters rejected a change to the current at-large system.
Although Council member Julie Mayfield mentioned — before quickly being hushed to avoid breaking attorney-client privilege — that Currin had presented about the districts in a closed session before her September departure, the city has taken no further action on the matter. Manheimer added that Asheville would not be challenging the change of Council elections to even years, which she said she requested from Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, after the districting bill appeared likely to pass in the General Assembly.
The rest of the newly approved expenses could be attributable to a staff shortage resulting from the exits of two other city lawyers. Former Deputy City Attorney Kelly Langteau-Ball and Assistant City Attorney Catherine Hofmann both resigned their posts around the same time as Currin; an Xpress public records request from October found that the two were involved in 22 ongoing litigations. Attempts to reach both attorneys for comment at the time were unsuccessful.
Langteau-Ball, for example, was responsible for representing the city in 10 cases related to eminent domain disputes from the River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project. The Chapel Hill- and Raleigh-based firm Brown & Bunch is now working with Assistant City Attorneys Eric Edgerton and John Maddux in those proceedings.
Outside firm Poyner Spruill is also representing Asheville in two of the city’s most contentious cases, both previously handled by Hofmann and Currin in tandem. One, now under consideration by the N.C. Supreme Court, concerns the city’s denial of a permit to PHG Asheville for an eight-story hotel at 192 Haywood St.; the other is Asheville’s attempt to reclaim over $1 million in unpaid fines from Reid Thompson for operating unpermitted vacation rentals on Maxwell Street.
All money for these legal needs will come from the city’s unassigned General Fund balance. Ball noted that “a complete update to revenues and expenses and fund balance projections will be provided to City Council as part of the Q2 financial report in February.”