City OKs extra funds for outside attorneys as legal limbo continues

Robin Currin sworn in as Asheville City Attorney by Mayor Esther Manheimer
THE WAY IT USED TO BE: Robin Currin, left, served as Asheville's city attorney alongside Mayor Esther Manheimer, right, for more than four years before departing in September. Photo by Alicia Funderburk

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.”

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Green Scene editor and a reporter for Mountain Xpress. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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10 thoughts on “City OKs extra funds for outside attorneys as legal limbo continues

  1. Robin

    So, the City of Asheville couldn’t find anyone to take any of the City Attorney jobs for upwards of $150,000 per year. That should tell the Asheville community plenty about what the entire North Carolina legal community, including all 99 County attorneys and 500 plus City attorneys, thinks of Asheville as an employer. It tells me that Asheville sucks so bad, that not one viable candidate applied for the position. I guess Cathy Ball doesn’t have any relatives or friends who are attorneys, other than her BFF, who’s already Mayor.

    • Enlightened Enigma

      Why do you think such a job should be filled from within NC? That is part of the overall ongoing problem here.

      • Robin

        Good question. North Carolina is a Dillon’s Rule state, one of only nine in the nation. That type of legal rule makes North Carolina’s legal system, as it applies to municipalities, unique. Asheville could absolutely hire an attorney from another state, but it would be a significantly steep learning curve for them to be successful. Based on what was presented in the article, and what is publicly known about Asheville’s considerable legal issues, it’s easy to surmise that Asheville would be most successful if they hired an attorney who is already well versed in the legal system that they’ll be operating in.

        Also, Asheville isn’t really in a position to wait while an otherwise competent attorney, “learns the ropes” of a Dillon’s Rule system. This isn’t really a learn the ropes kind of a job. The fact that they’re shelling out $300,000 per year on attorney fees, on top of the existing costs to run what’s left of the Legal Department, should tell you this problem is too important to screw up. Again!

  2. bsummers

    Let’s also not forget that Asheville is under constant attack from Raleigh, led by local GOPers who just plain hate the City. The attorney having to fight that off, on top of the normal workload – that’s a high-stress job.

    • Enlightened Enigma

      BS more because everyone knows just how CORRUPT the evil democrackkks are in Buncombe County / Asheville !!!

    • Lulz

      LOL yet how you’ve forgotten the corruption already. Local government has it so good around here. A bunch of cultist who’d rather look the other way and remain silent while criminal activities and corruption continue.

    • Buncy

      Thanks for the amusing melodrama. Things work better with a strong two-party system. On the other hand when one party is in monopolistic control as it is in our courthouse and city building, things go rancid and corrupt. As Madison said in the Federalist, control by one person or party is tantamount to tyranny.

      And let’s not forget that the scandals in our county administration would never have been revealed to the public; the stink would have been covered up and whitewashed with quicklime, if it hadn’t been for some nosy Republicans asking questions and stirring up publicity against Wanda Greene and her pack of thieving scoundrels.

      If only we had some conservatives or Republicans in City Hall and the courthouse to stop all the thievery there.

      In my way of thinking when all the judges in the courthouse are Dems, that spells the very definition of corruption. So you’d better stay out of that den of thieves if you don’t want to get skinned and nailed to a barn door like a raccoon hide.

      • bsummers

        You’re welcome. I notice you don’t at all dispute my comment. Nor do you acknowledge that Wanda Greene’s scheming worked just fine under members of both major political parties, including 8 years under Chairman Nathan Ramsey. Sure, they all bare the responsibility for not watching her more closely. But Wanda really got rolling under a Republican Chairman.

        As for the City, maybe the GOP would win some races if they stop running candidates who do things like calling Asheville “the heart of enemy territory”.

  3. Brian

    I think the people of asheville need to understand the rampant corruption in the city. They are spending millions more than they have publicly discosed in these eminent domaine disputes. Millions of taxpayers dollars in addition to the already debt funded bond issues. We need conservative fiscal leadership and transparency regarding the fleecing of Asheville and Buncombe Taxpayers.

  4. jonathan wainscott

    A good lawyer in Asheville charges $250-300 an hour. Even bad ones charge that much. Do the math.

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