EDA advised to get own attorney

Published 8:34 pm Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Suffolk Economic Development Authority has been advised that it will need to hire its own attorney, rather than use one provided by the city.

City Attorney Helivi Holland told the EDA board at its meeting Thursday that it would be a conflict of interest to have a city attorney represent the EDA while it also represents the city.

“What has happened now, in regards to a legal analysis of what would happen if the EDA had a different opinion than the city, we would be in a situation of a conflict,” Holland said.

Email newsletter signup

After discussion by the board, it decided to delay a decision on issuing a request for proposal to hire a new attorney for the EDA, which previously had its own legal counsel, Holland said, but began using the city attorney’s office to represent it in 2006.

She said if Assistant City Attorney Karla Carter is representing the EDA as she does now and what she wanted fulfilled went against the Planning Commission or City Council, which Holland represents, then it would be difficult to reconcile, if not be an outright conflict of interest.

“I would have a problem having Karla being an attorney in my office,” Holland said. “I appoint her, and so it ends up being some confusion there in regards to what they call a conflict of interest.”

Holland said she has had discussions with City Manager Patrick Roberts, Mayor Linda Johnson and the Finance Department about the EDA’s funding source, and “it is our opinion that you’d be best served with an attorney that solely represents the EDA.”

She said an economic development authority having a separate legal representation from the city is common among localities, and recommended that a request for proposal be issued to hire legal counsel to represent it.

Holland said she or Carter, or both of them, could serve on a panel to help interview prospective candidates for the position. She said a new legal counsel would have to be prepared to represent a governing body and be present at meetings.

Board member Maria Herbert asked if the authority had a choice in this, saying she didn’t think it was a good idea to have an outside attorney representing it.

“The problem is, there is a conflict,” Holland said. “And if Karla’s representing you all, and I’m representing City Council, there’s a major conflict.”

Herbert said she didn’t understand why the authority needed its own independent attorney if it works for the city.

However, Holland noted that the EDA is a special political subdivision and independent of the city, and it has its own decision-making process. The council and city manager cannot tell the authority what to do, Holland noted.

“What we do and what we’re trying to accomplish is for the benefit of the city of Suffolk,” Herbert said. “This is not a private entity. We get nothing from it as private citizens. All of what we’re doing is for the benefit of Suffolk, and Suffolk citizens. … I can’t even fathom a scenario where we would be in conflict. If we don’t necessarily agree on how we should move forward, then that’s how we work in partnership so that we can reconcile and work unified. There really isn’t any benefit for working in opposition.”

Holland and Carter both stressed that there have been no conflicts or anything unethical that has taken place, but the move to have the EDA have its own attorney is designed to prevent those scenarios from happening.

Holland said a conflict comes up in the appeals process, because someone working in her office would not be able to go against her in court.

“It can’t happen that way, and she would not be able to service you all the way you all would need serviced because she works under my direction,” Holland said. “So clearly, she couldn’t be saying the EDA do this, and I’m saying the city do this, her evaluation wouldn’t be so good that year, because I feel that I’m right, and she’s going to say, of course, ‘I’m right,’ because she has to represent her client zealously.

“There are rules of ethics that relate to representing a client, and you all are the client.”