City attorney’s advice: Correct, but wrong

Some of my best friends are lawyers. Maybe I should know better but I’d like to believe anyone can be rehabilitated. I often suspect their friendship is conditioned on what the law allows, mostly because they are very good at telling you what is legal. They’re usually no better than a fifth-grader in telling you what is right.  

There’s a reasonable argument as to why our city attorney could be replaced by a fifth-grader. It would save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and we just might have a better chance of getting things right. I think if the citizens of Homer had been privy to the confidential conversations between city attorneys and city council members over the years they would be mortified.  

In terms of how much they cost and how little confidence they inspire, you would be hard pressed to defend those attorneys against the average middle school debate team. At least a fifth-grader is aware their own advice is not worth $400 an hour.

To be fair, it’s not just Homer. This country, in general, continues to wallow in a torrid love affair with lawyers. Big business, government, unions, the morally and amorally outraged, even the sensitive food advocacy groups (think — Friends of Tofu) — they all budget for the services of attorneys whose primary claim to fame is that they can argue real well. 

Having a system of laws is one of the hallmarks of advancing civilization. Attorneys are not, but they often reflect how far we have to go.

Drawing this back to Homer, let’s give a special shout out to the latest incestuous advice given by our city attorney regarding seasonal sales tax exemption on food. He told the city council they could disregard two popular public votes that exempted food from sales tax for nine months of the year, and re-impose it by their own volition.

Now we pay this attorney about $300,000 a year for his sage advice. Perhaps a real man would also have told the council it would be pretty stupid to go against public will on this. But no, the man we pay so much money to simply advised six councilmen how to ignore the wishes of those who elected them. 

Is he correct? Absolutely.

Is that wrong? Absolutely. 

So what are we to do about this?

A handful of people show up once a year during annual city budget hearings and beg the council for money. Some council members, accustomed to seeing less than five faces in the audience at most meetings, get all excited and construe this as a mandate. 

So, now, some of them want to tax food all year so they can give away more money — even though the public said “no.” 

And here’s the kicker: They promise to use some of it for parks and recreation studies. You’ve got to be kidding? Do we really have people living here that need a government program and city department to enable them to enjoy nature and exercise?

The questions remain: Why in this world would we pay anyone $300,000 dollars who advises our city council it’s OK to go against the public will? Why would any thinking council member go along with that? 

But then again, no thinking council member did. And this, folks, is exactly why a fifth-grader could do no worse.

Our best shot at decent government is locally. Pay attention to who you vote for. 

Mike Heimbuch is a former member of the Homer City Council and a lifelong Alaskan “with a strong interest in adversarial positions.”