WARSAW — City Council is exploring the idea of hiring its own attorney.
The move, if embraced, would apparently be the first in the city’s history and is not something done in cities the size of Warsaw.
The debate sets up a somewhat awkward conversation between council members, Mayor Joe Thallemer and city attorney Scott Reust, who reports to Thallemer. And while council expressed appreciation for the city attorney, several said they would like to have an independent source for legal advice.
Talk of hiring an attorney that council members could turn to first came up in late March when some council members were upset with an incident involving Police Chief Scott Whitaker and wanted to look into the matter further over how he handled an alleged impaired driver.
The issue with Whitaker was set aside after a strong show of support from police personnel, but some council members indicated Monday they want to have an attorney available for other questions in the future.
Different sized cities operate differently when it comes to legal advice for the legislative branch. Larger cities, defined as class 2 cities, have the council president preside over council meetings and can rely on their own attorney to draft ordinances and look into issues.
In the smaller class 3 cities, such as Warsaw, the mayor presides over council meetings and uses the city attorney to draft ordinances and give advice.
Council President Diane Quance brought up the subject Monday, saying several council members brought the idea to her.
She proposed the creation of a task force to study the issue but had some reservations.
She warned that such an arrangement would require all council members working in unison.
“I also have a concern that this person not get seven different calls from seven different people who just want to chat. That would be an expensive conversation and I don’t think that’s fair to the people out here paying the bill,” Quance said.
Nevertheless, Quance moved forward with the plan and asked that anyone interested in serving on the three-member task force contact her.
Councilman Jeff Grose emerged as the chief opponent to the idea.
Both Grose and Thallemer pointed out that council members have access to the city attorney and an attorney through a state association of municipalities as well as Indiana Public Access Counselor for issues related to Indiana Open Door Law.
Grose said he opposes the idea and pointed to the difficulties of drafting a policy on how the attorney would be used. Cost is another issue.
He said he’s always felt comfortable going to the city attorney for advice and thinks council has other available options if needed.
“The protocol and costs are big red flags for me,” Grose said.
Councilman Michael Klondaris said he doesn’t think it would cost that much money and that he would be the first to speak out if it doesn’t go well.
“I just think it’s good to have somebody we can call and talk about issues that we may be experiencing, who we know has our interests as a legislative body at heart,” Klondaris said. “It’s new territory. It’s not been done before.”
Councilman Jack Wilhite said he just learned of the discussion Monday.
Councilman Ron Shoemaker, who brought up the subject months ago in light of the Whitaker controversy, said hiring an attorney for the council could result in better government.
Councilman Jerry Frush said he thinks he’d like council to have the option.
Thallemer, while saying he would not stand in the way of whatever council wanted to do, expressed concern over spending money and potentially duplicating services.
At the same time, he added if there is legitimate conflict, council should have the opportunity to seek advice
He said he’s been told that councils that have sought to have attorneys have run into competing interests, namely “collective desires” versus individual desires.
Councilmember Cindy Dobbins did not attend Monday’s meeting.
Quance did not outline a timetable for the task force.