By Frank Lewis
Portsmouth City Council voted Monday evening to pay legal bills from Portsmouth Attorney Steve Rodeheffer for services obtained by then-Vice Mayor Kevin W. Johnson, after council was challenged by City Solicitor John Haas to obtain outside legal assistance.
Third Ward Councilman Kevin E. Johnson moved to pass the motion.
“My issue would be, had this come to council first, whether he would have the majority,” Sixth Ward Councilman Jeff Kleha said. “Whether we would get a benefit from it; whether there was a need or we thought there was a need to do this. It is truly a moral obligation if it would have been approved, and here we are coming back saying on a procedural technicality let’s not approve it. But if it would not have been approved then we could argue would it be moral to approve it now. Each person would have to determine whether we derived some benefit from that or whether Mr. (Kevin W.) Johnson had reasonable belief that he really needed to contact Mr. Rodeheffer.”
Kevin W. Johnson took the action when Haas virtually recused himself from dealing with a possible ordinance to go before the voters to ask them to change the positions of solicitor and city auditor to appointed rather than elected. Haas said, since one of those items dealt with his own job, he could not act on council’s behalf. That is when he urged them to obtain outside legal help.
Johnson contacted Rodeheffer who eventually sent an invoice, listing his services, asking for $500 for those services.
Johnson did not comment much during the discussion, choosing to stand on the documentation he had previously provided to Council.
“I believe that I am one-sixth of the vote,” Kevin E. Johnson said. “I would like to have had something to say. But I also believe that we, as council, if we hire somebody outside, we have the obligation to see that they’re paid. I don’t know Mr. Rodeheffer but I believe that he needs to be paid because he felt that he was acting on behalf of the whole body of council. So I believe that we need to pay him.”
Second Ward Councilman Rich Saddler’s comments began with his saying he partially agreed with Kevin E. Johnson.
“I don’t think that he thought that he was working for all of council. There was no discussion whatsoever. There was no discussion amongst council to actually say that council would like for Kevin W. to go out and find legal representation,” Saddler said. “I don’t feel that that is necessary.”
Saddler said some things that should have been done were not done, and some things that should not have been done were done. He said he does not assess blame to anyone in the situation.
“I really don’t think it was an act of council as a whole,” Saddler said.
City Auditor Trent Williams inserted into the conversation that if council approved the motion he would need to be instructed as to where to get the money. City Manager Derek Allen said the money would come from the Professional Services account.
Fourth Ward Councilman and Acting Mayor Jim Kalb said expenditures should be approved before being incurred.
“This was never discussed. I feel I never had representation. I was never contacted,” Kalb said. “This was just an individual councilman that was seeking the advice without having the approval of all the other councilmen. Another concern I have that if council should decide to pay this, are we setting a precedent that, in the future if a councilman needs something or feels he needs legal advice besides our city solicitor, he seeks that advice, has a tab and expense account and has it paid, I don’t know what argument we would have.”
Fifth Ward Councilman Gene Meadows said changing rules in the middle of the game has never stopped council before, so he did not see Kalb’s point as valid, and said he believes council benefited from seeking outside counsel, so the invoice should be paid.
The motion passed by a 4-2 vote with Saddler and Kalb casting the only two dissenting votes.
Frank Lewis can be reached at 740-353-3101, Ext. 1928, or on Twitter @FrankLewispdt.