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Meridian spends thousands in legal expenses

By Staff
LEGAL FEES The north Meridian water tower, one subject of spending by the city of Meridian on legal services, is framed by redacted documents provided to The Meridian Star under Mississippi's Public Records Act. Documents show the city spent more than $300,000 for legal services from October 2000-June 2002. PHOTO BY PAULA MERRITT / THE MERIDIAN STAR
By Fredie Carmichael / staff writer
Oct. 6, 2002
The city of Meridian spent more than $300,000 to cover legal expenses during a 21-month period from October 2000-June 2002, according to documents obtained by The Meridian Star under Mississippi's Public Records Act.
Documents show the city paid lawyers and law firms for filing or defending lawsuits against city employees, other towns and land owners who live in Lauderdale County outside Meridian city boundaries. The fees also included routine legal expenses common to many Mississippi cities.
The documents show that Bourdeaux &Jones, the Meridian law firm that handles most of the city's legal work, receives a $4,295 monthly retainer as well as $75 an hour for legal work.
A review by The Meridian Star of city legal fees from Oct. 1, 2000, through June 30, 2002, shows expenditures of $309,672. The period includes the entire 2001 fiscal year and part of fiscal year 2002.
The newspaper obtained copies of the records after filing a written request with Meridian officials and paying $105 to cover the city's expense in preparing the documents.
Incomplete documents
Some of the more than 150 pages of public documents released, however, contained deleted information that could have shown what specific services attorneys had performed for the city.
Meridian officials removed portions of the documents with a razor leaving gaping, square holes in the middle of many pages because they claimed the information was sensitive and not for public knowledge.
The information that remained gives a broad overview of city legal expenses. It shows the city spent about $50,000 less in legal fees from Oct. 1, 2001, through June 30, 2002 the first nine months of fiscal year 2002 than it did for the same period the year before.
Mayor John Robert Smith said spending for legal services could rise when figures are compiled for the rest of the just-ended fiscal year. It and the new fiscal year that began Oct. 1 will include costs of legal services for the city's recently-proposed annexation and redistricting.
Top expenses
Meridian's largest single legal expense during the 21-month period examined by The Star was an annexation squabble with the town of Marion.
Marion filed a petition in Lauderdale County Chancery Court last year to annex areas in Lauderdale County. Both Meridian and Marion officials believed the areas were in their natural growth patterns.
The case was settled in Lauderdale County Chancery Court in August, with Marion getting about one-third of the land it originally wanted and Meridian protecting areas it wants to annex.
The city's cost in legal expenses: $30,149.28.
Another costly case involved an ongoing dispute between Meridian and Marion over sewage treatment. Marion filed suit after becoming upset that Meridian raised sewer rates.
Bill Hammack, a partner in Bourdeaux &Jones who handles most of the city's legal work, said the Marion sewer case is still pending and could be settled by the end of the year.
The city's cost in legal expenses: $12,739.24.
Settled cases
Meridian settled two other cases that cost the city thousands of dollars over the past two years.
One case involved Don Cross, a black city administrator who alleged racial discrimination against the city in 2000. Cross, representing a group of city employees, filed an equal employment opportunity complaint against the city.
Cross said the complaint was filed because a few employees told him they had been treated unfairly. There was no cause found and the case was dropped.
The city's legal expenses: $4,979.75.
In another case, the state Supreme Court recently affirmed Lauderdale County Circuit Judge Larry Roberts' decision in a dispute over construction of a million-gallon water tank in North Meridian.
Roberts had affirmed the Meridian City Council's decision to award a contract to Caldwell Tanks for the project. Another company sued, questioning the bid specifications for the project.
The city's legal expenses: $4,921.78. The water tower is up and Mayor Smith said it should be in operation "pretty soon."
Attorneys fees
City documents show that Bourdeaux &Jones was paid $197,812.74 doing legal work for Meridian during the 21-month span.
Documents also show that three other firms were paid for legal work it provided: Butler, Snow, O'Mara, Stevens &Cannada, of Jackson, made $91,924.76; Lawrence Primeaux of Meridian was paid $6,829.51; and Jackson-based Pyle, Dreher, Mills &Dye, P.A. made $13,105.31.
Ward 1 Councilman George Thomas said while the city spends a lot of money on legal expenses, it is always needed.

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