When City Attorney Wendell Willard retired on July 1, Sandy Springs lost more than its familiar legal voice. He played a key role in the city’s 2005 incorporation, which sparked metro Atlanta’s cityhood trend, and was an influential advocate for the city in his dual role as a local state representative.

In a recent interview at his Roswell Road office near City Hall, Willard recalled how the job of shepherding the cityhood bill became a mission to protect Sandy Springs’ public-private partnership model of government – with more than a few notable legal cases along the way.

Retiring City Attorney Wendell Willard, center, joined by wife Vicki, receives a proclamation of thanks from Mayor Rusty Paul at the July 18 City Council meeting. (John Ruch)

“I’ve enjoyed working to put it together. I’d also be interested in making it work,” Willard recalled telling the city’s founding mayor, the late Eva Galambos, when she asked him to serve as the first – and until this month, the only – city attorney.

City Councilmember Tibby DeJulio, another of the city’s founding officials, said Willard has been a key keeper of the flame on the public-private model, where most city departments are outsourced through competitive bidding.

“Sandy Springs was supposed to be a different type of city,” DeJulio said. “Wendell was a huge help in guiding us in that direction and keeping us focused on that vision.”

However, when Willard first got involved in the cityhood movement, he simply saw it as his job as a state legislator. He said he had no personal enthusiasm for cityhood.

“I live in the panhandle, and we always thought of ourselves as being in Dunwoody,” Willard said. “That [cityhood movement] was over in the west. We didn’t think of ourselves as being part of it.”

The panhandle ended up within Sandy Springs, he said, due to an old Fulton County “planning area” map that extended to the Chattahoochee River.

While the cityhood effort got more personal, it also became more complicated and a “major battle,” as no new city had formed in Georgia in decades. Willard said that working on the cityhood bill – whose main author was another recently retired state representative, Joe Wilkinson – was just one step. He had to seek the repeal of a state law banning a new city from forming within three miles of an existing one, and to enact legislation that would let Sandy Springs get its share of local option sales taxes.

Once the city formed, Galambos tapped Willard as city attorney. He had practiced in the areas of business law and commercial real estate, and had served as a DeKalb County attorney for four years in the 1970s.

“We were doing a unique experiment with the idea of being a public-private [form of government],” Willard said, adding that he wanted to stay involved and “hold faith” to that model. He noted that while other new cities that followed often used the outsourced model, some have shifted to more in-house services.

“I think Dunwoody has veered away from major parts of it,” he said.

In Sandy Springs, the model has “certainly had its bumps,” Willard acknowledged, including a lawsuit over the contractor selection process. The city won, he noted.

Willard said the best part of the job was the good working relationship among city leaders.

Wendell Willard in a scene familiar to city officials he counseled and opposition attorneys he met with: the conference table in his Roswell Road office. (John Ruch)

“I don’t take credit for this, but we haven’t seen some of the major blow-ups you’ve seen [in some other cities] between some councilmembers, or major litigation,” he said. “We’ve had, I think, great elected leadership.”

Serving those leaders was a complex job. “As a city attorney, I’m dealing with numerous areas of law”—business, real estate, contracts, parliamentary procedure and more, Willard said. “The biggest thing is just trying to prevent the city from getting into litigation.”

Of course, that’s not always possible, and the city has had some notable legal battles, including constitutional challenges involving the locations of strip clubs and a church.

“The biggest ongoing battle has been adult entertainment litigation,” Willard said, referring to a series of suits and countersuits between the city and various strip clubs and adult bookstores that have dragged on for most of the city’s entire existence. Scott Bergthold, a Tennessee attorney specializing in city laws restricting sexually oriented businesses, has advised Sandy Springs and other metro Atlanta cities on the controversial laws, but Willard has been involved in the cases as well.

Willard noted that similar legal battles in other cities, such as Brookhaven’s dispute with its sole strip club, the Pink Pony, have been settled already. He ascribed the length of the Sandy Springs cases to the courts.

“We had a judge in federal court that wasn’t really willing to recognize legal obligations … He dragged it out as long as he could,” Willard said. “The Pink Pony – a year and a half [and] boom, it’s done.”

The new city attorney is Dan Lee, who Willard praised as “a very capable, quality person.” Asked about new legal challenges the city and Lee might face, Willard noted a new zoning code will be enacted soon. “How that may be accepted by the community,” especially the business sector, is an area to watch, he said.

Meanwhile, Willard is easing into retirement from the position. He will stay in the Roswell Road office until City Hall moves to the new City Springs site next year. He is still working on some ongoing cases and advising Lee during his transition.

Willard is still serving as the District 51 state representative, but he intends to leave office after his term expires next year. However, he said, retirement doesn’t mean that he won’t have more legal business and public service to come.

“Who knows?” Willard said. “Lawyers never quit.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.