The Greensboro City Council, after a closed session Tuesday, Oct. 2, voted unanimously to accept the resignation of City Attorney Tom Carruthers effective immediately.
There was no discussion. The council then voted unanimously to name Human Resources Director Jamiah Waterman as acting city attorney, also without any discussion. Waterman had been an assistant city attorney before accepting the job earlier this year with human resources.
Carruthers had been with the city attorney’s office since 2009 and city attorney since September 2014. He had been named acting city attorney in April 2014 after the resignation of Mujeeb Shah-Khan.
A draft of Carruther’s separation agreement, which won’t become official until Oct. 30, provides him with six months salary, which is $90,000, and medical insurance through the end of the year. It appears to be fairly standard for someone in his position.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan said, “Tom had been juggling an awful lot of priorities lately and I think he’s done a very good job for the city. It’s a very high-pressure position. He’s done a lot of good things in the past four years and I think he can be proud of where the city is.”
City Councilmember Justin Outling said, “People lose support for you and you may lose your job through no fault of your own. It’s not a job where you’re guaranteed you’ll stay in it a very long time.”
Outling added, “Tom did a fine job and every one of the city councilmembers likes him a lot.”
Carruthers in the city press release said, “The last four years have been the highlight of my career to date and I am proud of my accomplishments and those of the entire staff. It has been an honor to serve City Council and the residents of Greensboro. I am excited for my next challenge but I will always cherish my experience with the City of Greensboro.”
Carruthers had handled a considerable number of high profile issues in the past year and some members of the City Council were not pleased with how they all turned out.
Early this year, several city councilmembers had expressed displeasure with Carruthers and it appeared he might be forced out. But then, on March 2, City Manager Jim Westmoreland unexpectedly announced he was retiring at the end of April.
The City Council only has two employees – the city manager and the city attorney. The City Council reportedly didn’t want to have both positions vacant, so any perceived difficulties with Carruthers were moved to the back burner.
Being the city attorney and working for a nine-member board is treacherous. Greensboro has a host of legal issues in many different areas of law. Outling, who is an attorney with Brooks Pierce, said he thought years of service as a city attorney should be counted like dog years, where each one counts for seven.
Outling has had several public disputes with Carruthers over legal matters. It is not at all unusual for an attorney on an elected body to have disagreements with its attorney, but sometimes they add up. One recent dispute came when Carruthers suggested a conditional recusal for Councilmember Tammi Thurm. Outling said no such legal animal existed.
In July, when Greensboro passed the aggressive panhandling ordinance written by the city legal department, the city was immediately sued. In August, the City Council rescinded that ordinance and passed an ordinance largely written by attorneys from the law firm Parker Poe and hasn’t been sued yet.
It is not uncommon for city attorneys to have two or three councilmembers who are displeased with them at any given time, and Carruthers often did. But what turned two or three into at least five appears to have been the whole easement issue with Rocky Scarfone, where the city didn’t settle the easement issues before purchasing the parking lot where the February One Place parking deck is to be built.
After months of negotiation, the city condemned the easements and Scarfone, who owns Cone Denim Entertainment Center, sued. Settling that lawsuit cost the city close to $1 million.
Then, when the City Council thought that was behind them, Scarfone came back because he had not signed the documents to make the agreement binding and was asking for further concessions. So another deal had to be made with Scarfone where the city agreed to sell Scarfone air rights over the alley behind the Cone Denim center.
It appears that the issues with Scarfone were the final straw for some members of the City Council.
Waterman was an assistant city attorney who concentrated on human resources issues. When Director of Human Resources Connie Hammond retired, Waterman was named acting human resources director and then human resources director, so he is no longer in the city attorney’s office – or wasn’t, but he’s back now.
The City Council is hoping for a quick process in hiring a new city attorney and announced plans to do a national search. It won’t actually be a national search because they have to hire an attorney licensed to practice law in North Carolina and should hire an attorney who is not only licensed but has experience in municipal law in North Carolina.
When Rashad Young was city manager in 2011, he hired Rita Danish as city attorney, whom he had worked with in Ohio. This was before the city charter was amended to have the city attorney report directly to the Council.
Danish wasn’t licensed to practice law in North Carolina and didn’t last long as city attorney in a state where she couldn’t practice law.
Shah-Khan had been the senior assistant city attorney in Charlotte before being hired by Greensboro and was the first city attorney hired by the City Council instead of the city manager.
Shah-Khan resigned amid controversy over giving the International Civil Rights Center and Museum a check for $750,000 without having a signed loan agreement. He is now the city attorney in Monroe.