Saturday, April 4, 2015

Time to (re)appoint? Davidson's town attorney?

A few weeks ago Davidson’s Town Manager, Leamon Brice, announced his intent to retire later this year after 25 years of service to the town.

Twenty five years is a long time.  However, there is another official who works for Davidson who has a much longer tenure.  That would be Davidson’s Town Attorney, Rick Kline.  Kline has been in that position nearly 39 years.

Like the town manager, the town attorney actually actually works “at the pleasure of the Board” – meaning this position reports to the Board – not the town manager as some may think.  By statute, the position of town attorney is appointed and does not have to be reappointed after each election.  Appointments by a previous board are considered to be continuous – unless revoked.

That makes a lot of sense when the attorney is also a town employee.  For example, Mooresville's town attorney is full-time.  Cornelius’s town attorney actually serves in that role for both Cornelius and Belmont.  These town attorneys do not operate in a private practice, so it doesn't necessarily make sense to re-appoint in that situation.

However, that is not the case in Davidson.  Like in many other small towns Davidson’s town attorney is also a private attorney appointed to handle the Board’s legal questions.  That means the attorney for the Town of Davidson also operates in private practice.  In Mr Kline's case, he is an active real-estate attorney.

Recently, this arrangement has resulted in a a couple of eyebrow raising situations.

Readers may remember late last year a story regarding the Bradford neighborhood in Davidson.  At the public hearings for the town’s proposed planning ordinance re-write, Bradford’s HOA President delivered some lengthy remarks regarding long-running issues with the town and the developer – including direct reference to the town attorney wearing multiple hats while also serving as the developer’s private attorney.

In the interest of transparency, readers should know I am a Bradford resident and former president of the HOA myself, so I am intimately familiar with some of the concerns the neighborhood has with this setup.

In response to follow-up questions after these hearings, the Town Manager responded about Kline's dual roles.  After indicating that Kline had always communicated to the developer that he could not be involved with issues related to the town, he went on to say the Davidson Board had asked Kline to contact the State Bar for an opinion on the “propriety of his representation” of both the developer and the town.

That was at the beginning of last month.  As of this writing, the Board still has not heard the results of that request.  Making the results of this request public is being left up to Kline.

In another ongoing matter, the town attorney once again sits the middle of an uncomfortably close situation.

At the end of the February Board meeting, Commissioner Stacey Anderson asked about some proposed new lots in the River Run neighborhood being offered by the River Run Country Club.
Mr Kline has long served as an attorney for the overall River Run developer – an entity called River Run Limited Partnership.  He is also a long-time member of the country club which is the totally separate entity trying to sell the lots.  Multiple records requests show that there has been considerable discussion about the buildability of the lots due to floodplain and other issues with Mr Kline sometimes acting on behalf of the town in a roll more suitable to the Planning Department than the town attorney.

The Town’s position is to not want building in the floodplain, but to say the least, having someone involved with this many apparent competing interests while representing the town certainly muddies the waters.

So, why bring up these issues now?

First, the Town Board is beginning next year’s budget process.  If the Board was to decide to make a change, now is the time to do it.  Furthermore, with the above issues continuing to play out over the coming months, it would be good if the Board took steps to clarify its support (or lack thereof) for the status quo.

At this point, Davidson's Board could do any of the following:

Officially reappoint Mr Kline as a vote of confidence.  While not required by law, according to the UNC School of Government it is something that certainly can be done.
The Board could decide it is finally time to remove even the appearance of any conflicts of interest and begin the process of looking for a new town attorney.
Do nothing.

Unfortunately, when the status quo brings this many headaches along with it. Doing nothing, is not really an option at all.

This story first appeared in the Herald Weekly.

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