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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Milton Council Debates Issue of Counsel

City attorney vote raises conflict ires

By DOUG NURSE / The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionPublished on: 04/19/07

It looked as if the WWF was about to visit what was otherwise a boring government meeting. The agenda item merely indicated that the Milton City Council was re-naming Mark Scott as city attorney, a formality needed because he had changed law firms.

Things got heated when the council took up the question of whether Scott also should be the city solicitor, or prosecutor, in Milton Municipal Court. The newly appointed Municipal Court judge, Barry Zimmerman, had argued having one lawyer in both jobs could pose a conflict.Mayor Joe Lockwood invited Zimmerman to explain. The city attorney also has a say in the judge's contract, whereas the solicitor should not, Zimmerman said. If the solicitor were accused of misconduct, the city attorney would have to defend the solicitor, he said.

Then the fireworks began.City Councilman Neal O'Brien said there could be perception that Zimmerman, a part-time magistrate in Alpharetta, might have a conflict of his own.About a month ago, Zimmerman, who also is on the bench in Alpharetta, Roswell, Atlanta and Fulton County — all part-time — had suggested the Alpharetta solicitor Fran Shoenthal could double as Milton's solicitor."There is a perception that this was a package deal," O'Brien said, suggesting that Zimmerman's objections to Scott might be misunderstood.

Upon hearing O'Neal's speculation, Zimmerman, a wiry man reminiscent of a bantam rooster, hit the roof — and looked as if he might vault the bar separating the audience from the council seats."I don't get angry but once a year and I am an-ga-ry," he said to O'Brien, as he paced before the microphone. "I will not stand here and put up with that. I don't need this. I'll resign tonight."

O'Neal's eyebrows arched.

In a measured, calm tone, O'Neal said he hadn't meant to imply anything.You said it tonight, you said it in e-mails and you said it on the phone," Zimmerman said.O'Neal apologized, and ultimately Zimmerman accepted it.Zimmerman said in an interview that he suggested Shoenthal for the role just to be helpful and that he didn't care who the city hires.
Municipal Court hears misdemeanor cases relating to traffic, code violations and other city ordinances. The judgeship is part-time.Zimmerman first raised the conflict-of-interest issue in March, and Lockwood asked him to write a letter explaining his concerns. Then Lockwood and the city staff researched how other cities handle the issue. Lockwood asked Zimmerman to explain the potential for problems to the full council.

O'Neal has been a supporter of Scott when City Manager Aaron Bovos complained that his bills weren't detailed enough and other council members have expressed concerns over how fast the city is consuming is its budget for legal fees.In the end, Scott said he no longer wanted to be the solicitor anyway.

The council reappointed him as city attorney. The city agreed on Friday that Scott could be the interim solicitor when court convened its first session on Monday.

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