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Tuesday, 30 May 2017 17:30

Huntersville ponders future legal needs strategy

Written by  Lee Sullivan

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — During the last half century — as Huntersville progressed from a small village to a town with more than 50,000 residents — the one constant has been the legal services provided by Town Attorney Bob Blythe.

Blythe began his affiliation with the town as a $10-a-meeting Town Board advisor in 1963, and his involvement in town proceedings regularly expanded along with the town’s population. And in response to that steady growth and related legal responsibilities, Blythe was added as a full-fledged town employee in 2010.

And now, as Blythe (who hasn’t announced plans to retire, but jokes that at age 82 it might be close to time to start thinking about it) could be approaching the final stages of his Huntersville duties, town commissioners have initiated the conversation about the best way to secure legal services in the future.

During the Huntersville Town Board’s May 22 budget review session, Commissioner Danny Phillips suggested that the idea of contracting for outside legal services was a topic worth considering.

“I’d just like to see the dollars, have the numbers to compare,” Phillips told fellow board members, adding that he believed the town could realize significant savings by outsourcing legal services. “I think we need to weigh all the options.”

In the town’s current proposed budget, Interim Town Manager Gerry Vincent and Finance Director Jackie Huffman have recommended that the town allot $241,536 for the town’s two-person legal department consisting of Blythe and paralegal Michelle Haines. That total includes more than $33,000 for the department’s share of building and office expenditures at Town Center and another $33,000-plus set aside for contracted legal services.

“It’s important to know that no matter which choice the town makes,” Huffman told commissioners during last week’s discussion, “some legal work will still be contracted out.”

Specialized areas, including human resource matters or property acquisitions, were mentioned as subjects where input from outside legal counsel would be vital.

While agreeing to revisit the topic when comparable estimates are compiled, and possibly making a decision on the future approach to town legal services by Jan. 1, 2018, several commissioners said they were in favor of keeping a town attorney as a town staff member.

“In my opinion, having a full-time person on staff would be better,” Commissioner Rob Kidwell said.

“I think there’s significant value to having our attorney,” Commissioner Melinda Bales said, adding that she didn’t believe the direct access and flexibility the town currently enjoys in the relationship with Blythe would exist if an outside firm was retained as the town’s legal representative.

And Commissioner Dan Boone added he feels comfortable contacting Blythe with questions about legal matters, but he might be more hesitant to reach out for an opinion or advice if that could trigger extra fees from an outside counsel.

Other towns

In North Carolina, the pattern seems to be that many towns similar in population to Huntersville — or where Huntersville’s population totals are expected to be in the not-too-distant future — have adopted the approach that having a town attorney on staff is the best policy.

“We don’t track that information directly,” says Scott Mooneyham, a spokesman for the North Carolina League of Municipalities office in Raleigh, “but the trend seems to be that larger municipalities, and growing municipalities, usually have an in-house legal department.”

Towns that do have on-staff counsel include Kannapolis (around 46,000 residents), Burlington (52,000), Chapel Hill (59,000), Jacksonville (67,000), Gastonia (74,000) and Concord (86,000).

But there are also exceptions. Wilson, with about 49,000 residents, has an outside counsel and budgeted $231,750 for legal services last year. And Rocky Mount, with 55,000 residents, uses an outside counsel and regularly budgets $200,000 for legal services.

And closer to Huntersville, Davidson (11,000) and Mooresville (38,000) have attorneys on the town staff, but Cornelius (28,000) opted to outsource legal needs when Bill Brown left the post nearly two years ago. In this year’s proposed budget, Cornelius has $165,280 earmarked for legal services.

The path Huntersville follows is yet to be determined, but after 54 years as the town’s legal advisor, Blythe — without mentioning the word “retirement” — acknowledged that a decision would probably be coming soon.

“It does seem inevitable,” he said with a chuckle, “that some type of change will need to be made shortly.”

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