Sunday, October 21, 2007

A quick look at the new County Attorney... and the Commissioners who hired him

I’ve been out doing some basic research on the county’s new attorney. He’s coming with baggage.

In case you haven’t seen the Fox 5 investigative report or read the story on the Fayette Front Page or read my previous blog… our newly hired Commission attorney told his previous bosses they could stop the public from filming open council meetings (and other meetings). The Council had COPS waiting to stop one group when they showed up with a camera. BIG mistake since the guy with the camera used to work (or does work?) for Fox News…

How does any attorney advise elected officials to keep citizens from exercising their clear right to audio or video record public meetings? There’s no gray area in the law. It flat out says anyone can do it. That’s basic 101 law. According to news stories the Mayor of McDonough (who was out of town during the fiasco) even told them they couldn’t ban cameras, etc.

Our new attorney, Bennett, admitted he was wrong when the you-know-what hit the fan. Of course, you may want to excuse his blooper. I mean, he only received his J.D. Degree from Georgia State University College of Law in May of 2000. He qualified to practice about a year later on April 9, 2001. It’s not like he has a lot of experience with those kinds of things.

Yep, our commissioners chose an attorney who has six years experience to advise them on issues that could cost taxpayers millions of dollars. But not to worry, I’m sure he’s going to be getting a lot of outside help on matters. It’s gonna be interesting to see how much all that outside help is going to ultimately cost. I’m betting the first year it’ll be rather light ‘cause the Commissioners will KNOW we’ll be looking at the numbers. But you just watch. The amount we pay for outside legal experience is going to grow and grow.

OK, I could easily get sidetracked. Let me get back to Mr. Bennett’s experience…

What’s he been doing for six years? For one thing, he’s been suing to get sign ordinances thrown out so companies and individuals could have more signs. Specifically he’s been suing in part to get OUR sign ordinances tossed out. Now maybe YOU want to have signs like they do in Clayton County, Dekalb County and Atlanta (the cities Bennett practiced in prior to hiring on with the City of McDonough)… but I don’t think the vast majority of the people living in this county want more billboards and rows of cluttered signs up and down the roadways.

Yes, I understand that if our current County Commission doesn’t want more signs then the new attorney won’t get to dabble in that area. However (yeah, there’s always a however or two or three in my blogs), we already know one commissioner on the board has sued the county wanting unlimited signs on his own property (and since you can’t do for one what you do for all usually, that means everyone would have been able to stop mowing their grass and put in a carpet of signs). Did I mention that the commissioner (Eric Maxwell) who sued used Scott Bennett as his attorney when he sued? Hmmm… I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, the dots are too easy to connect.

Experience. Or lack thereof. We know Mr. Bennett can dispense bad advice and he likes to sue for signs. What else has our new attorney been doing for the past six years?

Since 2004 he’s worked for the City of McDonough in Henry County. There’s some crossover experience there. He’s been providing legal advice (stop filming our meetings!!!), preparing ordinances and contracts, reviewing zonings and other things that give him some experience (3 years) in areas the County Commission will deal with.

He’s also been working for a city that is currently exploding in growth. There has been a lot of bitter fighting going on between those who want to manage growth and those who don’t in McDonough. The Mayor Pro-Tem Brown was in the news recently for voting on rezonings for folks who invested in his restaurant. One who invested $25,000 also gave Brown an additional $9,000 loan. He says he was advised by the City Attorney that it was OK to vote for his buddy’s rezonings (for higher, much higher, density by the way) SIX times in 2004. I’m not sure if it was OUR new attorney (who started in 2004) who did the advising or if it was the previous city attorney yet. I have some calls and emails out and will get back to you on that one…

Prior to working with pro-growth McDonough, he worked for Webb & Porter (Atlanta), area of practice First Amendment Litigation for a little less than a year (i.e., suing for signs).

He worked for the DeKalb County Law Department representing the Development Department, Planning Department, reviewed contracts, defended general litigation, etc. for about two years. Although he was just one of the group of attorneys working with DeKalb he probably did learn quite a bit as DeKalb is another county that is bulging at its boundaries and overrun with signs…

Before working in DeKalb he drafted complaints and similar, defended depositions, prepared ordinances, prosecuted municipal court dockets, etc., etc. for Fincher & Hecht in Morrow (Clayton County). I haven’t looked it up, but I’m 99% sure that the Hecht in Fincher & Hecht is Greg Hecht who ran for a couple of Democratic offices in recent years. He worked with them from May 2000 to November 2001. He didn’t pass the Bar until April of 2001 so I’d imagine he was just learning the ropes and wasn’t able to represent anyone in court until he passed the Bar. But then again, maybe law works like medical field… Doctors have Physician’s Assistants who do everything they do pretty much, the doctor just signs off on everything.

I know that throughout this blog I’ve implied that Bennett may be a pro-growth, sign-loving attorney. I don’t know that he is. Could be he’s just a hired gun who does what he’s directed to do like many attorneys. I can only make judgements at this point based on the fact that he’s made the choices to be where he’s been. He chose to litigate for tossing out sign ordinances. He chose higher density counties. He chose the field he’s in. He gave at least one major piece of very bad advice that any first year attorney would know was wrong.

I’m more concerned about our County Commission’s abilities and choices than I am Scott Bennett’s at this juncture. Eric Maxwell said he was removing himself from the process because of the political nature of the situation when the Commissioners started the process. However, when it’s all said and done the Commission walked lock-step and chose Maxwell’s attorney. Maxwell didn’t disclose his relationship with Bennett. And he voted to hire him on Friday. Worst case scenario he should have recused himself after disclosing his association with the guy. The County Commission chose a guy who fights to break the back of tough sign ordinances. They chose a guy with only six years experience.

My next blog is going to be about the other two “top-three” candidates the County Commission interviewed and rejected. The Commissioners talked to a total of six and from those six they selected the top three. The top six were vetted by a committee who looked at a pool of twenty-some-odd candidates. How’d Eric Maxwell’s sign-suing six-years experienced attorney get to the top of that heap? How’d he beat out a guy with 32 years experience? Hmmm…

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