Former Elberta Councilman John Conti and Elberta town officials found themselves in Baldwin County District Court last week for a hearing involving Conti’s lawsuit against the town for reimbursement funds the former councilman said are owed to him, but no resolution came from the hearing.
Conti filed a lawsuit against the town of Elberta Jan. 18 following a continued issue involving travel reimbursement for a conference Conti attended in 2015.
According to the lawsuit, Conti sought the full $2,761.64 reimbursement as well as $176 in court costs and $587.41 in interest.
“The defendant has wrongfully and in bad faith repeatedly failed to pay the plaintiff upon numerous requests for payment for the plaintiff’s travel expenses on official town business as a representative to the National League of Cities Conference in Washington D.C. in March of 2015,” the lawsuit said. “In August 2017, the State Deputy Attorney General recommended the town pay the travel expenses.”
The reimbursement has continued to be an issue between Conti and the town since 2015, when Conti was still a member of the town council.
Numerous votes were taken to reimburse the money to Conti during his tenure on the council, which ended in Nov. 2016, with all of them tying 3-3 and failing.
In the hearing in District Court March 23, Judge Bill Scully entertained a motion from the town of Elberta’s attorney, Lawrence Wettermark, for a possible summary judgement of the case.
Wettermark presented Scully with an exhibit that said the town council had adopted a resolution requiring council approval for certain expenditures to be made using town funds. Conti countered that resolution only applied to items in the town’s contingency fund.
Scully said the wording of that resolution seemed to back up Conti’s argument.
“Mr. Conti’s point says this would be for a specific line item, and the resolution seems to address that,” Scully said. “It says specifically it applies to the contingency fund.”
Wettermark also argued that individual city council members can’t act unilaterally in spending town monies.
“The city council is a legislative branch, not an executive one,” Wettermark said. “A council member couldn’t unilaterally take a trip to Washington without the approval from the rest of the council. A council member doesn’t have the power to act as an executive and spend funds without authorization. A city council member does not have the authority to spend money as a legislator.”
Conti argued that precedent for allowing the trip was set the year prior to his going.
“There was precedent the year before when one of the council members went, got no approval and spent almost $3,000,” Conti said.
“That was one of the reasons this policy was adopted,” Wettermark replied, referencing the contingency fund resolution.
Scully told Conti that even though the trip had been approved in the past, that didn’t necessarily bind the town to approve it every year.
“I don’t know if it would be binding as a governmental matter,” Scully said. “That wouldn’t necessarily allow it in the future. All expenses would still have to eventually be approved by the city council.”
Conti argued that the previous mayor, Marvin Williams, was “paying money left and right” without specific council approval to do so.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s okay to do it in the future,” Scully replied.
Scully said he had difficulty finding where in the law it said the town had to pay Conti the money.
“If I’m going to order them to pay you some money, I’m only going to do that if they have a legal obligation to do that,” Scully said. “If there’s not a legal obligation to do it, I’m not going to order them.”
Scully said he would give both parties time to address the law and delayed making a decision on the case until April.
“My opinion on this is where does the city’s obligation to pay you (Conti) come from,” Scully said. “I’m not ruling - I’m just letting you know how I view this case right now.”