Unstated power: behind the City Attorney’s role

For the first time in 16 years, Asheville has a new City Attorney: On March 18, City Council appointed Robin Currin, a Raleigh lawyer with particular expertise in land use and zoning law, to the job. The role isn’t always a very publicly visible one, but it’s one of the most powerful positions in city government, especially in an era of frequent court battles and sometimes controversial policy changes.

The city attorney is one of only three positions directly employed and overseen by Council (the other two are city manager and city clerk). Most positions in Asheville’s city government answer to the manager (though they take directions from Council), but the attorney reports directly to the city’s elected officials, advising them and representing their legal interests. Currin is the first woman to occupy the job (though Martha McGlohon served as interim city attorney after Oast’s departure). Currin’s pay will be $165,000 a year.

Her predecessor, Bob Oast, occupied the role for almost two decades. While Oast, who left the position last year, was often a soft-spoken contrast to the politicians he took marching orders from, he was no stranger to the legal fray. Just since 2005, the city has fought major lawsuits over state laws restricting its water use, annexation, open records, property disputes and more. A key battle that city government’s currently fighting is against a state law seizing the water system; Council is claiming in court that the measure is unconstitutional. While Currin will take office after arguments are presented in court this April, city leaders have noted that an appeal by either Asheville or the state is almost certain, so she’ll likely have to direct that effort.

With high stakes in such cases, the capability, views and temperament of the city attorney (and the assistant attorneys they hire and manage) can play a big role. Whether the attorney concludes, for example, that the city can fight a particular piece of legislation is vitally important. Beyond courtroom duels, Currin will also advise Council on its legal options. Council members rely heavily on the advice of the attorney in shaping what policies they believe will be legally feasible, especially in cases where the law’s unclear or ambiguous. So the attorney’s legal interpretations and favored strategies can have a significant impact on what the elected officials decide to pursue.

Currin has been rated as one of the top lawyers in the state and country on land use and zoning law. So, with development a big issue in Asheville, Council’s choice of an attorney known for her expertise in those areas isn’t particularly surprising: Currin’s advice and her experience will no doubt constitute a big part of what city officials, possibly for decades, will consider when they’re evaluating and changing the way development works in Asheville.

As for Currin’s view on the current legal challenges facing the city, in true lawyerly fashion she’s staying mum so far, declining to comment until she takes office.


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