CATEGORY: ALD Tupelo City Council

AUTHOR: MOULDE

HED:Council votes to pay official's Ridgeway legal fees

By Philip Moulden

Daily Journal

Tupelo's City Council voted Tuesday to pay legal fees for city Chief Operations Officer Joe Benefield in connection with Ridgeway subdivision misspending, although one councilman noted Benefield has not been named in any legal action.

The council also put off discussions of a site lease for a baseball park to house the Big South professional baseball league franchise granted to Tupelo operators. City Attorney Guy Mitchell said both sides wanted revisions in the proposed pact involving eight acres at Veterans Memorial Park in east Tupelo. The lease may be put back on the council agenda March 18.

By a 7-2 vote, the council agreed to pay a $5,000 bill for Benefield's lawyer, Tony Farese. Benefield hired Farese after he was advised to seek independent counsel by Mitchell, who could not serve as counsel to Benefield or others in the case.

The city suffered an estimated $1.1 million in cost overruns on the Ridgeway subdivision's drainage and street project last year. The project was originally expected to cost just over $700,000.

Last June, the city filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against former Public Service Department Director Randy s, claiming he knowingly, or with reckless disregard, approved invoices for the overruns. The suit also named a Batesville contractor involved in the subdivision work and the independent engineer hired to design and oversee the project. McMickin was fired last April, about a month after the overruns were discovered.

McMickin responded with a multimillion-dollar defamation suit against the city and Mayor Jack Marshall. The other defendants in the city's suit have also filed counterclaims.

Although he was not cited as a defendant in any of the actions, Benefield may become an object of McMickin's suit, or of McMickin's defense in the city's suit.

McMickin has stated in court papers that all of his actions were made under the authority of his superiors. Only Benefield and Marshall ranked above McMickin in the city hierarchy.

From the beginning, McMickin's position made it "very clear that other people were responsible ..., " Mitchell told the council.

Mitchell said while the council wouldn't have to cover Benefield's fees, the state Court of Appeals has established a precedent to permit it in cases where an employee was acting in his capacity as a city official.

But Ward 3 Councilman Smith Heavner argued that the city shouldn't pay legal bills for employees who haven't been expressly accused of any wrongdoing.

"I don't think it's fair to the taxpayers to go out and hire lawyers in advance, saying he might be charged with something ..., " Heavner said.

However, other council members contended the city was duty-bound to support its employees.

"I don't think ... we can ever undermine the employees of the City of Tupelo," Ward 7 Councilman Danny Barrows said. "(But) I don't like the way it was handled ... I think the council should have been told we were gong to be responsible for a separate attorney, and we weren't."

Citing Mitchell's recommendation to Benefield, Ward 4 Councilman Steve Mayhorn said: "I assume Mr. Benefield felt he had no choice but to be protected."

Ward 5 Councilman Tommy Doty joined Heavner in voting against paying the bill.

In other action, the council approved a resolution involving the sale of $12.5 million in bonds to refund old notes on the Tupelo Coliseum, although it is not certain the bonds will be sold.

Rising interest rates have stalled the process, although a bond consultant said bids will be opened March 18. If a bid is acceptable, the bonds will be issued. If not, new bids may be sought later.

The consultant said interest rates have climbed to about 5.4 percent although the city is looking for a rate of 5.3 percent or below. The notes now outstanding on the coliseum debt command 7.3 percent interest.

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