Sandy Springs is seeking competitive bids for its city attorney contract—currently worth more than $540,000 a year—for the first time in its 10-year history. Six firms, some with City Hall political connections, have responded, but Mayor Rusty Paul ordered a new round of bidding for more competition.
The legal services job is crucial for such influential tasks as writing city codes and defending city lawsuits. Current City Attorney Wendell Willard, who is also a longtime state representative, is set to retire this summer. Willard was involved in the city’s formation in 2005 and will take a lot of institutional memory with him.
In an interview before the official decision to reopen the bidding, Paul said he was comfortable with the quality of the firms that had responded, but he also wanted more choices. He said he was concerned that firms based outside the city might not understand they are eligible.
“I think we’re missing some opportunities,” Paul said. “I’d like to see a deeper pool…I want to make the best possible decision.”
The current plan is for a new city attorney and staff to be in place by May 1 and work alongside Willard until he leaves July 1. However, Willard could stay longer to ensure a good transition, said the mayor, emphasizing the city will “do it right rather than fast.”
The city operates with a general contract for city attorneys to provide legal services. There is also a specific, formal staff position called “city attorney,” which is filled by mayoral appointment with City Council approval.
The city attorney does not necessarily have to be a member of the firm holding the legal services contract. In fact, that’s the way the city currently operates. Willard is the mayor-appointed city attorney, while legal services are provided by a separate firm, Riley McLendon. Cecil McLendon, a partner in that firm, is referred to as the assistant city attorney. Willard directs overall legal strategy and advice, while Riley McClendon does the day-to-day legal staffing.
According to the city, Willard is paid a retainer of $25,467.75 per month for legal services, and $175 per hour for work not covered by the retainer, such as representing the city in court or in real estate negotiations. Riley McLendon is paid $15,000 per month on retainer and $150 per hour for extra services.
Sandy Springs is famous for outsourcing most city departments through contracts with private companies, but the current legal services deal was never competitively bid. It’s a legacy of the legal advice provided while the city was still forming, according to city spokesperson Sharon Kraun.
Riley McLendon provided free legal advice to a governor-appointed commission that formed the city after residents voted in favor of incorporation, Kraun said. The firm then negotiated a contract to stay on as the legal services provider. Willard was involved in the cityhood movement and was appointed after cityhood to the trusted position of city attorney under a separate pay contract.
Paul said it remains to be seen whether he will appoint a city attorney who is part of or separate from the firm that wins the legal services contract, but the rebidding shows the decision-making is tied together. “I want to make the best possible decision,” Paul said, adding that he will have an informal group of attorneys vet his eventual appointee.
The city issued a request for legal services bids in December and got five responses from six firms. The bidders included: Riley McLendon and Burr & Forman, in a joint bid; Baker Donelson; Hall Booth Smith; Patrick G. Longhi; and O’Daniel McDonald.
Former City Councilmember Chip Collins is a partner at Burr & Forman, while O’Daniel McDonald is the firm of another former city councilmember, Graham McDonald.
Marietta-based Riley McLendon has a large business in municipal services. McLendon serves as city attorney in Dunwoody and Doraville. In Dunwoody, the firm last month ran into scandal when assistant city attorney Lenny Felgin resigned after allegations that he made offensive posts on Facebook, which he says were made by a hacker.
Sandy Springs announced the reopening of its legal services contract bidding on Feb. 15 with a response deadline of March 22. The contract will include a city attorney and assistant city attorney, both part-time, and two full-time staff attorneys. The bidding form is long and detailed, including a request for a sample legal opinion and a statement on how the firm would keep legal costs low. It also requests the background of the firm and each attorney, among other information.
Willard is leaving the city attorney position as part of an overall retirement from public life. He is also leaving his House District 51 seat, and City Councilmember Gabriel Sterling is among the candidates to replace him.