The City Attorney, Politics and Keeping out of the Bed of Strange Bedfellows
I am a City Attorney first and foremost. Today, I want to tell you what a City Attorney is not. The City Attorney is not a politician or elected official. That role is reserved for the Mayor and members of the City Council (i.e. the governing body). The City Attorney is not a policy maker. That role is reserved for members of the governing body and City staff. The City Attorney is not an attorney for City citizens. The City Attorney is not an attorney for staff. And the City Attorney does not represent the Mayor or City Councilmembers individually.
Those last 2 sentences may seem strange. What? You don’t represent the Mayor, councilmember, or City staff? While the City Attorney may take direction and assignments from the Mayor, a councilmember, or city staff, per the Texas Rules of Professional Conduct, the City Attorney represents the entity itself, the municipal corporation.
Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct provide as follows:
“Rule 1.12. Organization as a Client
(a) A lawyer employed or retained by an organization represents the entity. While the lawyer in
the ordinary course of working relationships may report to, and accept direction from, an
entity’s duly authorized constituents, in the situations described in paragraph (b) the lawyer
shall proceed as reasonably necessary in the best interest of the organization without involving
unreasonable risks of disrupting the organization and of revealing information relating to the
representation to persons outside the organization.”
Now, re-read my title. You are probably asking yourself what does this mean in light of what a City Attorney is and is not.
This means the City Attorney should stay as far away from the local politics as possible. That is easier said than done. Councilmembers may try to use the City Attorney as a weapon (i.e. The City Attorney said we could legally do x, y, or z). Or the City Attorney may be used as a shield (i.e. The City Attorney said x, y, or z are illegal). When councilmembers disagree, the City Attorney is often stuck in the middle of the political tug of war. If the City Attorney is vigilant, then he or she should stay out of everyone’s political bed.
I provide legal advice. How that advice is used politically is outside of my control. We have a saying at Randle Law Office that Grady Randle coined and is used quite often: “we are not a legal solution to your political problem.”
Keeping an eye on the rules of professional conduct helps keep the City Attorney out of the political fray. Our legal advice is not based on whether the answer will be received favorably or negatively. Our legal advice is not based on who we like. Our legal advice is not based on political repercussions that may occur. Our legal advice is based on the law and our best understand and interpretation of the law.
We leave the politics to House of Cards.
Timothy Kirwin is a Senior Attorney with the Randle Law Office in Houston. A native of Houston, Mr. Kirwin previously worked as Assistant Curator at the Houston Fire Museum and an Archivist at Baylor College of Medicine. After receiving his J.D. from the University of Houston, Mr. Kirwin has practiced in various areas of municipal law, first as an assistant city attorney in Missouri City, Texas, and since joining the Randle Law Office, serving as a municipal prosecutor or city attorney for multiple cities. He is also Associate Municipal Court Judge for the city of Hedwig Village.