Decatur city council takes step to limit mayor’s authority to settle lawsuits

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DECATUR, Ala. – The Decatur City Council is working on an ordinance that would modify the mayor’s power to settle lawsuits without the council’s consent.

“Any mayor to have the latitude to make agreements that are open-ended as we’ve had, I think that we’re treading on dangerous ground,” said city council member Billy Jackson, district 5.

In 1998 this ordinance passed, giving the mayor authority to settle or authorize the settlement of personal injury, workers’ compensation, and property damage lawsuits brought against the City of Decatur. 

After a short debate, the city council passed an ordinance Monday night that would require council approval for settlements over $25,000 for personal injury or property damage claims.

Last week they discussed a limit of $50,000 and $100,000. Monday night they decided to decrease that amount.

Herman Marks, Decatur city attorney, says the city’s insurance negotiates settlements and finalizes claims. He says the mayor does not negotiate lawsuits. The carrier finalizes the settlement amount.

The city has a $50,000 general deductible that Marks says is paid out of the city’s general fund.

“It’s taxpayer dollars and we need to be as conservative as we possibly can. And there’s no problem if it’s a legitimate settlement and claim. I don’t think that the council is going to push against it,” Jackson said.

“These settlements affect spending out of the general fund. Suppose we clear the next year and time and we had 40, $25,000.00 settlements. What did we just spend? We just spent a million dollars, didn’t we,” said city council member Charles Kirby, district 4.

Transparency is among the issues raised by the council. City council members expressed they would like to be notified when those settlements occur.

“We talked about last week how we just wanted to also be more knowledgable and the communication would be appreciated to know about certain claims,” said city council member Kristi Hill, district 2.

The ordinance still needs to go through a second reading before it is passed.

And there are questions council members would like to iron out before that takes place. For instance, Kirby would like the council to consider adding language about incidents in the claim.

“I want to emphasize that word ‘per incident’ because you could have a suit or settlement with multiple incidences in it,” he said.

City attorney Marks says he is in discussion with the city’s insurance carrier as well as the council. The ordinance is scheduled for second reading later this month.

WHNT News 19 reached out to the mayor for comment on his experience with this ordinance. He explained in this statement:

“I am not trained to make an arrest or extinguish a house fire, as a mayor I rely on public safety professionals to handle those needs as they serve.

“The same applies to legal work. Our City Attorney negotiates or works with a legal professional who does. Once our City Attorney, whose client is the City of Decatur, feels the best settlement has been reached he presents the facts to me. I cannot recall not accepting his recommendation during my first term in office.”