COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - A Muscogee County judge has made a partial ruling in the lawsuit involving Columbus' mayor and several other elected city officials.
The judge denied the city's motion to dismiss Sheriff John Darr and Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce, and we've learned the legal process has cost taxpayers $478,600.50.
The real problem, however, is the cost of the legal fees and who has to pay up.
Three separate lawsuits involving Sheriff John Darr and Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Bishop claims they can not operate their departments on the city's proposed 2015 budget.
"The judge is not going to intervene to prevent the city or any other appointed officials in official capacity from containing forward with their budget process," said Mayor Teresa Tomlinson.
Sheriff Darr and Linda Pierce are considered constitutional officers, the payment of their legal fees may be doubled to the already high defense costs.
"We will have to pay their attorney fees for this unfortunate litigation," said Mayor Tomlinson.
The city plans to appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court. Mayor Tomlinson says the judge is ordering them to pay the legal fees from their general fund account. Mayor Tomlinson says no court can direct which account to pay the funds.
Attorney Bill Stone represents Linda Pierce comments on this ruling.
"The statute doesn't say anything about charging it to her budget and they didn't appropriate it to her budget for that reason. So the only way they can charge it to her budget would be to amend her budget and put more in it in order to pay her fees. This also means that in the Clerk's and Sheriff's cases the City has wasted over $330,000 of taxpayers money raising frivolous defenses to their legitimate lawsuits. The order granting the motions for attorney's fees for these constitutional officers will subject the city, and hopefully the individual defendants to substantial liability for the attorney's fees and legal expenses reasonably incurred by the Clerk and the Sheriff in the presentation of their rightful grievances to the court for an adequate remedy," said Bill Stone.
Charlie Miller, attorney for Greg Countryman and Vivian Creighton-Bishop sent the following statement concerning the legal fees in this case so far:
"The Mayor claims this suit is about the officials getting what they want when in fact, it is about making the mayor follow the law and submit their requests to Council who then decides what they get. If she had done that these fees could have been avoided."
Greg Countryman released the following statement:
"I am stunned and outraged that the Mayor has spent the so-called budget "savings" for FY2015 from the Marshal's office almost three times over in legal fees, with a lot more to come. If she had followed the Charter and not engaged in a personal vendetta against the elected officials all of those attorneys' fees would still be available to serve the taxpayers. I have been criticized for rightfully spending $7500 of my budget. Since then I have spent approximately $15,200 out of my own coffers and not my budget, even though the City previously ruled I could use my budget for these fees. Now we find that the Mayor has the City on a course to spend well over $1,000,000 tilting at her personal windmills. She intentionally hid this from the public until a concerned taxpayer made an open records request and the Mayor should be held responsible. The citizens and Council should be just as outraged and should demand the Mayor stop this fiscal irresponsibility immediately."
The lawsuits also involved Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Bishop.
Here's a breakdown of fees in the litigation defense costs:
- Linda Pierce: $217,754.88
- John Darr: $111,603.61
- Countryman/Bishop: $149,242.01
Mayor Tomlinson issued a late statement to clarify her points:
"We refer you to page 3 of the judge's order, which plainly states 'As to injunctive theories of recovery, summer immunity bars claims against CCG and individual defendants an official capacities. Therefore, the defendants' motion to dismiss is sustained and granted in so far as it applies to injunctive claims against cc G and the individual defendants in individual capacities."
Note that the court further states in the first paragraph of page 3, that "one could infer" that the other claims "might be inappropriate as well."
Regardless of how plaintiffs counsel wants to spin the cuts for the guts of the Darr claim, and brings into question the need for clarification on appeal as to any remaining claims.
The mayor say the judge left in the constitutional claims, which have really high standards and are harder to prove.
Mayor Tomlinson says the reason they feel comfortable is that he threw out the high-stake claim and because the judge said "one might infer I should've thrown out the others."
Mayor Tomlinson contends funds/legal fees should come out of the officials' budget, not the city's general fund (no court has ever ruled on that before) and that is the part the plaintiffs believe they've won.
A Stone Mountain Judge will hear the next steps in the lawsuit due to a conflict of interest here in Muscogee County. A conference is set for May 8 to discuss the next steps in the lawsuit.