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1:46 PM Sun, Sept. 23rd

Prescott Council mulls more autonomy for city attorney's office

PRESCOTT - They did not name names, but Prescott City Council members hinted Tuesday that conflicts have arisen in the past over the city's chain of command.

Specifically, council members voiced concerns about the fact that the city manager oversees employees who work in the city attorney's office.

Under the Prescott City Charter, only four employees answer directly to the City Council: the city manager, the city attorney, the city clerk, and the city magistrate. The City Council hires those employees, and conducts annual job evaluations with them in closed-door executive sessions.

The remaining hundreds of city employees fall under the leadership of the city manager.

At their Tuesday workshop, council members conducted a review of the city charter, as well as city code provisions and council authority and responsibilities.

As a part of that review, City Attorney Gary Kidd gave a brief rundown on the hierarchy of city government. That, in turn, generated questions from council members about why the employees in the city attorney's office must answer ultimately to the city manager.

Councilman Jim Lamerson maintained, "This issue has not been easy over the past few years." He added that it is important that investigators in the city attorney's office "not be told to back off."

Councilman Steve Blair voiced similar concerns. "You need to be able to operate at full tilt without any interference from the management staff," he told Kidd.

While Kidd declined afterward to talk about individual cases that might have prompted the discussion, he acknowledged that potential for conflict exists when employees in his department conduct investigations on other city departments, which answer to the city manager.

"One of the roles of my department is to conduct investigations," Kidd said. "Anything we do like that - any investigation - is sensitive."

On Wednesday, Lamerson elaborated on his concerns, pointing out that he would like to see a more defined "separation of powers" within city government, which would allow for more autonomy for the city attorney's department.

"There seems to have been, over the past few years, a misinterpretation or misunderstanding of the accountability of employees of the city attorney's office and who they were accountable to," Lamerson said.

For instance, he said, "There might have been issues with the disposal of public property or the way bids were handled - things like that."

Employees in the city attorney's office should be able to conduct investigations on those matters at the request of council members, Lamerson said, without involvement from the city manager.

Specifically, he brought up last summer's gala reopening at the Elks Opera House, and a possible investigation into "who authorized giving away up to 80 tickets? What was the reason for giving away so many tickets?"

Lamerson pointed out that is just one of the questions that has come up and "one of reasons why you would have wanted the autonomy."

Acting City Manager Craig McConnell told the council, however, that creating four separate divisions within the city could cause issues of its own. As an example, he brought up policies regarding cellphone use; having each division set a different policy could cause confusion, he said.

While council members originally asked to have the matter back on an agenda for the June 14 meeting, McConnell said that might be too short a timeframe. "We really have to scope out ahead of time and understand what those nuances are," he said.

Kidd said the matter originally came up during last year's evaluation of city charter amendments for possible inclusion on the November 2010 ballot.

"I put it down to a need to update," Kidd said of this week's discussion. "We have had a tremendous amount of growth, and we really do need to do housekeeping."