Monday, July 20, 2009

Southport Mayor Fights With Police and Council as Big Law Firm Fees Break City's Budget

In early 2008, at the Rex Early book signing of "It's a Mighty Think Pancake," I met the newly elected Southport Mayor Richard Thoman. I hit it off immediately with Thoman, whose day job was as a dentist. Thoman was an outsider, someone who had taken on the Old Republican Guard in the tiny city of Southport, and had won. I spent considerably time talking to Mayor Thoman that night.

Fast forward about 18 months and Southport is again in the news, this time over the resignation of almost the entire police force of Southport. WISH-TV reports:

The city of Southport is without police protection after all officers and the chief quit because of a conflict with the city's mayor.

Council members said the police department resignations are the last in a series of events that has them pitted against their own mayor, a man they say has spent tens of thousands of dollars worth of city money on attorneys.

Southport is a town of only 1,800 people, a place where folks still sit on their porches to chat. Lately, Mayor Rob Thoman has been the talk of the town.

A former Southport council member, Greg Dent, voted for Thoman. "And I would like to apologize for that and I would like to apologize to anyone who voted for him at my request," he said.

Council Member Susan Schmoll regrets her decision, too. "He had the police remove this 70-year-old man and it's cost the city close to $35,000 to sue this man to keep him quiet and that is done without our knowledge or our approval."

Charles Lynch, who attends every council meeting, was the man sued by Mayor Thoman. He said Thoman ordered police to arrest him for praying out loud. Something that opened every council meeting until Thoman took office.

"I stood up and when I stood up he grabbed my arm behind me and he handcuffed me," said Lynch. According to Lynch, Mayor Thoman not only sued him with city money, but he's spent a lot of the cities money on lawyers.

"Southport is broke and now he's saying that he can't pay the police department," said Lynch.

Officers and the chief resigned after they said the mayor demanded a speed trap on Southport Road and required that violators pay citations to the city of Southport rather than Marion County. "

I would be surprised if there is a Southport if he stays in office," said Council Member Dent. "I don't think the city could last through his term."

Because the city of Southport does not have a judge or court to handle traffic citation disputes, all citations have to go to Marion County's court system. Mayor Thoman did not return WISH-TV's calls or messages. He is expected at Monday night's monthly council meeting and many residents plan to be there.

Being an attorney, obviously my eye caught the comment that Southport had spent tens of thousands of dollars which had devastated the budget. The article talks about how $35,000 alone was spent on one case, where a local resident who was sued civilly for praying at council meetings in protest of Mayor Thoman's decision to change tradition and eliminate the public prayer before council meetings. Apparently Mayor Thoman filed the lawsuit without informing council. Why someone would file a civil lawsuit instead of handling the matter criminally makes little sense.

Then I learned that the law firm billing the tiny City of Southport tens of thousands of dollars was the politically-connected Barnes & Thornburg. In short, Mayor Thoman, the ultimate outsider, had rushed after the election to hire the ultimate insider law firm and peddler of political influence in the city, Barnes & Thornburg. That should sound familiar because it is exactly the approach outsider Mayor Greg Ballard took after his election win.

Why in the world would a city of 1,800 want to use one of most expensive law firms in the city to handle tasks that could be performed, as well or better, and certainly much cheaper, by virtually any other law firm in town? There is only one reason - the attempt to buy political influence by the Mayor. In exchange for city business, big law firms kick back money in campaign contributions to the elected official who then gives more business to the law firm. In the meantime, the politically-connected law firm uses influence to try to keep the elected official in power.

It is one thing when you're talking the City of Indianapolis with over 800,000 residents paying the inflated legal bills of a big, politically connected law firm. When you're talking a city with 1,800 residents, the impact of those unnecessary and excessive legal bills can be dramatic.

Southport is not alone. The Town of Speedway also employs Barnes & Thornburg and other large law firms for routine tasks that could easily be performed by other law firms. Undoubtedly their residents are being hit with hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees that could easily be dramatically by sending the legal work to other law firms. Again, the reason the political influence wielded by the firms, not the quality of the legal work.

We need to demand that our elected officials, from the smallest city to Indianapolis, the largest city in the State, be more responsible when spending our tax dollars.



Gosh, if they acted like it was their own money and hired independent lawyers, they would find jewels like I did when I found Mark Small.

Downtown Indy said...

I think Thoman is whacked in the head myself. Dare I say a 'Little Caeser?'

But about the 'speed trap' - well, that's been there for at least 35 years that I know of. Every high school kid learned about it as soon as they got their license.

That, and the stop sign set back from Madison at Banta. It was common to get nailed for failure to stop when kids rolled on up to the light and 'ignored' the stop sign 30 feet back.

Doug said...

That excerpt is a little skewed on the topic of Lynch's prayer. It neglected that he decided to pray loudly in the middle of a moment of silence; apparently causing a disruption. From the descriptions I read, he was being intentionally disruptive because he was pissed off about the decision not to have a prayer during the meeting and decided to act out.

As for the lawsuit, I'd certainly like to know the particulars.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Doug, I agree. I am sympathetic to the cause, but there is no right to do what he was doing with the disruprtion. But a civil lawsuit? I'ld like to see the particulars. Sounds too much like some sort of SLAPP lawsuit to me.

Doug said...

"During a moment of silence, Larry Tunget, wife of former Mayor Nannette Tunget, began reading a prayer out loud.

Lynch also began reciting the prayer. When Thoman asked Lynch to be quiet, he began to pray louder, according to the report.

Lynch then was asked to leave the meeting. He refused and grabbed a chair, prompting Southport Assistant Chief Mark Myers to forcibly pry Lynch's hands from the chair, according to the report.

Lynch continued to resist Myers, according to the report, and refused to place his hands behind his back. He eventually was removed from the building and handcuffed. Lynch said he was released from jail about 7 a.m. Tuesday."

Advance Indiana said...

Paul, Glad you caught this one. I saw the story about the fees when I was reading that local newspaper the other day at Madison Bar & Grill. There is just no bottom to this pit is there?

Paul K. Ogden said...

Gary, a friend sent me the story originally. It never ceases to amaze me these small cities paying for legal representation from B&T. That poor city has 1800 people and they're paying tens, if not thousands in legal fees to a big law firm.

I could have swore my conversation with Thoman included complaints about big law firm overcharging cities with legal fees. He agreed and then went right out and hired Barnes & Thornburg. Funny thing is I had the same covnersation with Ballard the week before the election. He promised to put an end to the legal patronage network. Then he waded right into it.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Doug, I agree...I understand why they couldn't tolerate that sort of disruption. Free speech doesn't mean you have the right to interrupt other people's speech.

I'm not sure though how this could have been also pursued as a civil action. It's hard to come up with legal theories.

It goes to show you something, I've always said. It doesn't matter if it's running for PTA President or President of the United States, politics is practiced the same way. Only the stakes change. Southport has 1800 people and two precincts. That again is TWO precincts.

varangianguard said...

The Mayor is a pathological narcissist. He can be very charming, until he is thwarted or crossed.

Everything is about him. It's his vision for the City or the highway.
Attempt to stand in his way, and get ready for the wrath of Rob.

He spends City money on other things too. I cannot say whether the Council knew about this or not, but at the Stutz Art Show this year I saw plans for a redesigned "downtown" Southport east of Madison Ave. that I knew nothing about. Nor did any Southport residents I asked. I'm sure the design fees alone cost more than a couple of grand.

Paul K. Ogden said...


Thanks for the observation. I realize now my inital impression of the mayor was not correct.

american patriot said...

B+T is making a fortune on legal fees in Speedway with the redevelopment. Rather than advise the town officials before they make mistakes and break state laws, they wait until someone complains to the board of accounts or A/G's office and then charge oodles of taxpayer dollars to get the town out of trouble.

Random thoughts said...

I have had personal experience with the Mayor and it pleases me that he appears to be experiencing the same waterloo as his personality twin, Obama. There is another twin, Napoleon. Perhaps Napoleon is more appropriate.