Dunwoody City Council candidate Robert Miller, who is campaigning on a promise to make DeKalb County Schools abide by the city’s building and zoning codes, is questioning the council’s decision to release a legal opinion saying only the state has that authority just days before the Nov. 5 election.
The new legal opinion released by the city on Oct. 28 backs up the city’s claims that it cannot force the school district to stop adding trailers to overcrowded schools as part of a years-long war. Frustrated residents have demanded the city stop the school district from adding more trailers by enforcing local building codes, but officials say they are handcuffed by state law from doing anything.
“I’m disappointed in the timing and the lack of transparency on part of the city attorney and the city manager,” Miller told the council at its Oct. 28 meeting during public comment. “[The report] was designed to support the city attorney’s opinion … rather than seek the truth.” He also complained that, in response to an open records request, he received only a heavily redacted email regarding the legal opinion’s commissioning.
The city denied allegations it was trying to hide anything by releasing the report more than a month after receiving it. The email was redacted because of attorney-client privilege, according to the city.
“The white paper was attorney work product and subject to attorney-client privilege. It was released only after the City Council made a determination to do so,” city spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher said in a written statement. “Letters are typically redacted if they contain attorney-client privileged information, which is excluded under [the state] Open Records [Act]. That was the case with this letter,” she said.
Miller is running against Stacey Harris for the open District 1 seat. The core message of his campaign is that the city does indeed have the authority to require DeKalb Schools follow its building codes. He also promises, if elected, to pass an ordinance to give the city authority to regulate the permitting of trailers, including how long they can remain.
Harris said her goal, if elected, is to advocate for local schools through collaboration.
“The challenges we face to improve our schools require multiple to approaches to find a solution,” she said in a written statement. “I’ve continually stated throughout my campaign that we have to advocate for improvements to our local schools through collaboration with other municipalities, government entities and stakeholder groups.”
The new legal opinion, called a “white paper,” was requested by the City Council in August. The unanimous vote to commission the opinion followed community backlash after the school district added more trailers to Dunwoody High School over the Independence Day holiday week.
Assistant City Attorney Bill Riley, who has told the city it cannot enforce its building codes on DeKalb Schools property, hired Smith Welch Webb and White Attorneys at Law for the new, outside legal opinion. The firm lists many areas of expertise, including local government.
“It is my opinion that the city does not have the authority to directly compel a local school system to comply with its local ordinances,” William A. White, a partner in the firm, wrote in his opinion to the city. “This is the case even in the realm of the construction, maintenance and report of school facilities.”
White sent the report to Riley Sept. 6, but the city waited until Oct. 28 to release it to give the council and staff time to digest the information, according to Boettcher.
Miller said he filed an open records request with the city weeks ago seeking to obtain the legal opinion, which he knew existed because of the city council’s vote in August. He said he only recently received a heavily redacted email dated Aug. 14 that Riley sent to Andrew Welch, a partner with Smith Welch Webb and White Attorneys at Law.
In the email, Riley asked the firm for its legal opinion on what powers municipalities have over local school districts in the areas of construction, maintenance and repair of its facilities.
In an interview, Miller said it was unwise for the council to expect its own city attorney to select the law firm to write a legal opinion on the issue.
“You can’t send the guy who gave you an opinion to go out and get a second opinion and expect to get anything other than something that supports him,” Miller said. “He is a direct employee of the City Council.”