CHRISTIANSBURG — Town council on a 6-0 vote passed a policy this week that will aim to keep its members from inadvertently running up attorney bills.
The “town council attorney engagement policy” requires that any council questions for the town attorney initially go through either Town Manager Randy Wingfield or Assistant Town Manager Andrew Warren.
The new policy comes after some council members earlier this year raised concerns about lacking guidelines on speaking with members of its contracted legal firm about town business on a whim — and possibly triggering a legal consultation bill.
Council members who sought the policy said that it would allow them to have certain inquiries addressed without necessarily having to consult the town attorney.
“It was appropriate,” councilman Brad Stipes said. “It established ground rules and expectations for the proper use of our legal counsel.”
Stipes said the new policy also allows his colleagues to keep better tabs on how each of them handles taxpayer money.
“It’s more of a courtesy so everyone’s aware of what’s going on,” he said.
A recent example highlighting the issue involved councilman Steve Huppert, who cost the town $115 in May after he briefly spoke with attorney Mark Popovich about gun control and editorials provided to media by elected officials.
Huppert said that the conversation wasn’t prescheduled and that he only chose to speak with Popovich upon seeing the attorney at Christiansburg Town Hall.
“When I did that, I certainly didn’t mean to be taking a short cut,” Huppert said. “I was really going in there to chit chat with a fellow.”
Popovich is with the Salem-based Guynn, Waddell, Carroll & Lockaby, which Christiansburg contracts by the hour for its legal representation. Popovich is usually at town hall once a week.
Christiansburg so far this year has paid the law firm more than $50,000 for its services, according to town records.
Huppert said he supports the new policy.
“That has been a story that more people have talked to me about than almost anything else I’ve done on council,” he said. “I think it’s a very good idea. Everybody should go through the town manager or assistant town manager … to talk to an attorney. We shouldn’t be doing it individually.”
The policy spells out other conditions.
For example, if a council member contacts the town attorney directly, they are required “in a single email correspondence with sufficient information to apprise the elected body of the nature of the communication and specific question posed.”
The policy also clarifies the sort of questions to the town attorney that will be off limits.
“Expressly prohibited contacts include, but are not limited to, any and all communications of a personal nature or that are not directly related to the elected member’s official duties,” the policy reads.
An exception to the policy’s general conditions will be when the town attorney is contacted for matters about public sector positions over which the council maintains appointment authority . Those positions include the town manager, police chief, treasurer and council clerk.