Eagleton on City Attorney Deirdre Dexter: "not competent in the field of municipal law"

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Back in January, Tulsa City Councilor John Eagleton sent a 12-page letter to Mayor Dewey F. Bartlett Jr. expressing his concerns about City Attorney Deirdre Dexter's competence to continue serve in that capacity. Dexter, a former associate district judge, was appointed as interim city attorney in December 2006, as one of then-Mayor Kathy Taylor's at-will employees. Dexter became the permanent city attorney a year later.

Eagleton's letter to Bartlett included detailed, footnoted discussions of eight cases where Eagleton believes Dexter has failed to serve the best interests of her client, the City of Tulsa.

1. Failing to alert the Council to a conflict between state law and the election date specified by the charter amendment, adopted last fall, which calls for three-year staggered terms;
2. Issuing conflicting opinions, reversing years of precedent, on the extent to which and manner in which city employees could participate in partisan city elections;
3. Incorrectly identifying a low-turnout citywide special election as the basis for the number of signatures needed for the non-partisan election petition;
4. Failing to provide timely advice concerning an ordinance that would compel city employees to cooperate with a City Auditor investigation;
5. Failing to providing an accurate summary of (and apparently failing to research) the case law affecting a proposal to require permitted LED billboards to display public safety information during emergencies;
6. Allowing a collective bargaining agreement to include terms that violated the 2007 ordinance limiting take-home vehicles to city employees;
7. Failing to give timely and accurate advice to the City Council concerning the Owen vs. City of Tulsa settlement conference as to whether the case would be covered by the newly passed charter amendment requiring Council approval of settlements exceeding $1 million;
8. Failing to properly advise or defend the City of Tulsa regarding the Great Plains Airlines lawsuit and the settlement of the case for over $7 million.

Last week, there was a story about Eagleton's letter in the daily paper. Subsequently, Eagleton has released the text of the letter on his website with this introduction:

Recently the Tulsa World ran an article regarding a letter that I sent to Mayor Bartlett in January, detailing my concerns about City Attorney Deirdre Dexter's ability to adequately fulfill her role for the City. I would like to share that letter here so that you can read firsthand my reasons for thinking Ms. Dexter is unfit to serve in her current position. This was a letter I shared with the City Council and the Mayor. If you should read it and find within it something you believe to be a factual inaccuracy, I would appreciate it if you would share it with me.

To his credit, Eagleton sought to handle this quietly back in January. As a recently elected mayor, Bartlett could have replaced Dexter without surprising anyone, as she was an at-will employee of the previous mayor.

Eagleton's case against Dexter is a strong one. Here's his summary of the last case he cited, the settlement of the Great Plains Airlines lawsuit:

This issue arises out of Mrs. Dexter's failure to properly advise or defend her client regarding the legal defenses and issues surrounding a lawsuit. Due to lack of competent counsel, the City of Tulsa settled a lawsuit against it for over seven million dollars ($7,000,000.00).

Defenses for the City of Tulsa included statute of limitations, governmental tort claims act, and common law. These defenses were either not explained with sufficient clarity for the City to make a proper decision, not pursued with due diligence, or if explained to the Mayor (a recent board member of the de facto Plaintiff), Mrs Dexter was under an obligation to notify other elected officials of the Mayor's specific intent to pay the plaintiff regardless of the law on the issue.

Since Mayor LaFortune refused to agree to the same settlement, presumably because he believed it was an unlawful and completely defensible, Mrs. Dexter was under a duty to notify the Council of the Mayor's conflict of interest and receive their input as well, before settling a 7,000,000.00 case without a fight.

As a result, the day the plaintiff filed an amended petition naming the City of Tulsa as a defendant, the City submitted its Answer. The next day a joint motion for approval of settlement was submitted, parties appeared before the judge, and it was approved.

Mrs. Dexter's inability to properly advise the Mayor or the Council of the legal defenses and the weight to be given to each, caused the taxpayers of the City of Tulsa to pay a judgment they had little or no legal responsibility for. There is currently a qui tam action pending as an attempt by some taxpayers to recover the monies paid to the plaintiff.

Dexter may have been doing exactly what Mayor Taylor wanted, but she had a responsibility to serve the interests of the entire city, not just Taylor and her cronies.

(Here's my take on the Great Plains Airlines settlement from my July 2, 2008, column.)

The City Attorney is entrusted by charter to act as the chief legal authority for the City of Tulsa. Structurally, however, the City Attorney is accountable only to the Mayor. I have long advocated for a charter change to give the City Council the right to hire its own attorney independent of the City Attorney's office. (The City Council has been blessed with very good attorneys -- the latest being Drew Rees -- but they officially work for the City Attorney.) I also believe that mayors should be able to hire and fire department heads, just as the president can hire and fire cabinet members, but only with the advice and consent of the City Council.

In several of the cases cited by Eagleton, the errors and failures had the effect of serving the political interests of Mayor Taylor and her allies. Whatever ultimately happens to Deirdre Dexter, Tulsans need to address the bigger, structural problem with the way the City Attorney is appointed and with the office's powers and responsibilities.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on April 13, 2010 12:57 AM.

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