A four-inch stack of paperwork regarding an economic development deal? Defending the City of Huntsville against a claim? Advising City Council on an ordinance? Prosecuting a misdemeanor crime?
These and a multitude of other duties fall on the Legal Department of the City of Huntsville, with its staff of 11 attorneys and five support personnel, led by City Attorney Trey Riley.
We’re responsible for advising and providing legal assistance to City of Huntsville as a whole.”
As much as it might be officially deemed a city “department,” it’s really a mid-sized law firm, with attorneys in different specialties and areas of expertise.
“We’re responsible for advising and providing legal assistance to City of Huntsville as a whole, which includes its 20-plus departments, and the various legal issues they encounter,” Riley says.
Additionally, the staff supports another 20 or various organizations over which the City has domain, such as Burritt Museum and the Iceplex.
It has four prosecutors working full-time at Municipal Court, prosecuting violations of city ordinances and state laws.
While each attorney by necessity must have a broad foundation in law, there are areas in which one might have a particular expertise and interest that best serves the City.
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There might be defense work should the City be plaintiff in a suit, or the department would assert on behalf of the City if property is damaged. There is an enormous need for skill in business law.
“We engage in all sorts of negotiations with outside entities. When we have economic development news, that’s usually after an extended period of intense negotiations and a tremendous amount of time and effort from the City Attorney’s office,” Riley says.
As resolutions and ordinances are passed by the City Council, the legal department has made sure all standards are met and the department serves to advise the various committees and boards that regulate activity in the City.
A major aspect, albeit underappreciated, is rights-of-way. Says Riley, “Before I got this job, I rode up and down the roads all day completely ignorant that on each side of the road is what’s called rights-of-way, and all manner of thing are going on – sewer, gas, fiber, telecommunications, poles, equipment buried in rights-of-way. It’s a constant challenge to keep that in an organized fashion and that’s an on-going and changing process.”
There are three relatively new additions to the City Attorney’s office, stepping in as Jeff Grimes and Alonzo Robinson moved on to become municipal court judges.
Whitney Aboko-Cole is the youngest attorney on the staff. She’s a 2015 graduate of the Jones School of Law at Faulkner University, with her undergrad at UAH, and had been in private practice in Huntsville before joining the City.
Eddie Blair has extensive trial experience in insurance defense, including a stint as staff attorney for Allstate. His primary role is to handle claims filed against the City. He’s a graduate of Cumberland School of Law at Samford University.
Joel Holley is a retired District Court Judge from Chambers County, who also served as prosecutor there for eight years. He was also City Manager for Lanett, Ala., for 3 ½ years. He, too, is a Cumberland School of Law graduate.
Being proactive is essential
Riley assumed the role of City Attorney on January 1, 2016, replacing Peter Joffrion. It was a totally new role for a lawyer who been a sole practitioner for more than 30 years after a short tenure in the D.A.’s office.
Riley’s day begins with an 8:30 meeting on the eighth floor at City Hall as various department heads meet with Mayor Battle and City Administrator John Hamilton.
“As I’ve come on board, I realize how important it is to get to know all these department heads, to keep a finger on what they’re doing, what kind of problems they might be experiencing, and I can see things early on,” he says. “You may be able to offer some advice to keep a problem from ever developing.”
Every other Thursday, Riley trundles to his spot on the dais in City Council chambers, huge folders stuffed with documents tucked under each arm. Staff members who have advised on any of specific items facing the Council that night, whether it be a claim settlement or an annexation issue, have prepped him and provided appropriate documents.
“The wonderful thing I have, and I can take no credit for it, is my predecessor assembled a staff of lawyers who are gifted in their areas of expertise,” Riley says. “I’ll put them up against anybody. I’m proud of them and all they know it. They make me look smart.”