The Decatur City Council’s lead role in approving a $7 million fee for the Decatur law firm that negotiated a legal settlement with 3M raises questions about the council’s transparency and financial judgment at the very moment it’s preparing to handle millions of dollars more than it normally would.

The council agreed Oct. 26 to a $98.4 million settlement with 3M as part of a resolution that authorized Harris Caddell & Shanks to keep $7 million of that in fees. Decatur Utilities and the Morgan County Commission approved the resolution separately.

The disturbing factor in the city’s approval of the resolution is that, prior to that, it had no written contract obligating it to pay that much. In fact, the law firm was still billing on an hourly basis as of November 2020 and had earned $415,000 in 65 months of working on the case.

No city official has satisfactorily explained why a law firm that had been billing hourly was paid $7 million for its work after November 2020.

If there was any oral agreement that the law firm would be paid on a different basis beginning in November 2020, the city should say that and provide the terms of the unwritten agreement.

If there was no advance agreement that the law firm would receive $7 million, the city should explain why it was willing to deviate from the previous $260-per-hour fee the firm was charging and award what is in essence a bonus of more than $6 million.

City officials supporting the $7 million payment have argued it was deserved. That’s a fair argument, but one could ask if firefighters and police officers aren’t more deserving of bonuses if the city is handing them out. And if the city is awash in cash, maybe the council should consider helping out all of us residents who are suddenly paying more in sales tax for a pound of beef because its cost has risen.

The issue of how the council handles money is important. It will get $35 million in the 3M settlement for a “recreational facility” and another $7.2 million to support “community development and recreation.”

Additionally, the city is receiving federal COVID relief funds, planning a bond issue estimated at $20 million and receiving sales tax revenue that is rising simply because it’s a percentage of prices that have increased.

It’s imperative that the council demonstrate wisdom spending this windfall, much of it due to good timing — which is the case with the federal money, rising sales tax collections and 3M settlement — and previous councils’ careful budgeting that put the city in a position to borrow more.

Decatur’s four first-term council members also should pay more attention to seven-term Councilman Billy Jackson. He was the only person on the council, County Commission or Decatur Utilities governing board to speak in opposition to the attorney fee before the settlement resolution was approved, and he was right. Having been on previous councils, he understood that no written contract had ever authorized a $7 million fee.

The council that began its term in November 2020 has impressed the city with its willingness to take action and think boldly. However, the explanation for when and why it agreed to pay millions in attorney fees for the 3M settlement is insufficient and, frankly, disappointing.

The explanation for the payment should be supplied so that the public can be confident that future decisions, such as spending $8 million for a Sixth Avenue streetscape project and at least $6 million for a downtown parking deck, are sound.

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(2) comments

Michael Clark

Whatever else it is, that's the equivalent of picking $127 out of the pocket of every single resident of Decatur.

lewis allison

Wow!!! Negotiations for a 7 Million bonus after already being paid. City Council is really “Shining” on this one.

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