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JRA beefing up legal staff despite period of lean finances

By TED CARTER

The Jackson Redevelopment Authority has rehired one lawyer as special counsel and is adding a co-general counsel.

Why the sudden need to lawyer up?

The Redevelopment Authority, long known for an absence of transparency, is not saying, even when pressed by one of its members.

The increased legal staffing is coming at a time the JRA’s new chairman has warned the agency has more money flowing out than flowing in.

Meeting Oct. 28, the agency’s governing board voted to put terminated JRA attorney Zach Taylor back on the  payroll as “special counsel.” The appointment comes a year after the agency’s governing board fired the Jones Walker attorney as JRA’s general counsel but kept him on at $265 an hour to complete Authority work he had under way.

Under the new arrangement, Taylor will take on legal work as directed by the JRA board.

The rehiring came on a motion by board member Andria Jones.

Jones also made a successful motion to hire a yet-to-be-identified third lawyer as co-counsel, though the board did not discuss why an additional lawyer is needed other than to note hiring more help does not reflect on the job Penny Brown is doing as JRA general counsel. Brown, a solo practitioner, served as assistant counsel under Taylor for several years before she replaced him in August 2014.

The third attorney would handle “special assignments” and work that “moves the Authority forward,” according to the motion that received a 3-3 vote and a tie breaker vote from Chairman McKinley Alexander Jr. to make the hire.

JRA Board member Jennifer Johnson asked in what capacity the co-counsel would serve.

‘“Special assignments’ and ‘moving the JRA forward’ is kind of vague,” said Johnson, referring to the wording in which Jones framed her motion.

“We have two very competent attorneys on the payroll,” she said. “I’m wondering what that person will do.”

Johnson is a Jackson attorney who served as JRA chair until Alexander replaced her in August in a 4-3 vote in which holdover-JRA commissioner Beau Whittington made the deciding vote.

Whittington’s term expired in July but he can stay on the board until Mayor Tony Yarber names a replacement.  Yarber was scheduled Tuesday to ask the City Council to confirm a nomination of John C. Dinkins, a Jackson commercial real estate professional, to the board.

Alexander said the board’s Finance Committee will decide whether to do a formal request for qualifications or let the word out informally that the Authority wants to hire a lawyer.

The Finance Committee will decide the duties and responsibilities of the additional lawyer, Alexander said, and will recommend contractual terms such as hourly rates.

He said the hired lawyer “will not reduce the responsibilities of our current counsel” but in some instances would help to reduce the counsel’s work load.

Johnson sought to ask more questions about beefing up the legal staff. Alexander cut her off, however.

“We can’t go back and forth” on this, the chairman insisted.

Tensions between Alexander and Johnson have been evident since Alexander took over as chair in August. At the Oct. 6 meeting, he accused Johnson of being part of a “Commission Mafia” that exerts control over issues brought to the governing board. “It apparently appears to me that if the agenda item does not emanate from the former chairman that we will not get any action on it,” Alexander said.

Meanwhile, the JRA apparently will do a reset on its effort to hire an executive director, a post that has been vacant since the firing last spring of Willie Mott.

A personnel review committee narrowed the search over the summer to two candidates recommended by an Atlanta search firm. Though the panel interviewed the two out-of-state finalists neither received a job offer.

At the Oct. 28 meeting, the board appointed a new  review committee with Jones chairing the panel. She replaced Luther Porter as chair.

The board is willing to pay the new executive director approximately double the $60,000 annual salary paid Mott.

The hirings of the additional legal help and the executive director will be coming at a time, according to Alexander, that more money is going out of the JRA than coming in.

“Right now, all we have is outflows,” Alexander said at the board’s Oct. 6 meeting, a special meeting held to make up for the one postponed in September after a failure to raise a quorum.

“We have no cash flows worth talking about,” said Alexander, a Jackson State University educator and former Army Corps of Engineers economist.

He said it is “terribly important” that the JRA begin generating some active contracts, “where we can generate some money.”

He charged that “each time an opportunity for getting some money comes up, we fail to act.”

That, he added, “is not what I call fulfilling your fiduciary responsibilities.”

One change on which the new chairman is insisting is that the board try to limit its regular meetings to one hour. He said he expects to accomplish this by the board’s Finance and other committees discussing agenda items and making recommendations on them at least two to three days ahead of the board’s monthly meetings.

The JRA in recent months has refused to make the agendas available to the public ahead of a meeting. Staff has insisted that agendas can be released only through an open records request, which typically can’t be fulfilled until after a meeting date.

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