Village attorney fired… or is he?
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO “We’re without an attorney again,” Monticello Mayor Gordon Jenkins observed at Monday’s regular village board meeting.
For personal family reasons, Village Attorney Jacob Billig was not at the meeting, and a few late arrivals and occasional no-shows in the past had apparently left Jenkins frustrated.
Other trustees, like Carmen Rue, didn’t seem to mind, but the mayor ended up firing Billig that evening.
In some ways, however, it wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. Jenkins admitted he had been considering replacing Billig for some time, and the board went into executive session Monday to talk it over with his potential successor, County Treasurer Ira Cohen.
Rue and Scott Schoonmaker voted against holding an executive session without legal counsel present, but Jenkins found support from TC Hutchins and Victor Marinello.
When they emerged, Jenkins levelled accusations at Billig.
“He comes and goes as he pleases,” the mayor charged. “I think he’s not serving the board or the public as he was called to do.”
Jenkins advocated for hiring Cohen “to bring on some kind of logic to this board.
“He doesn’t have an agenda,” said Jenkins. “He’s not my hatchetman… and a good attorney will control this board.”
Although Jenkins, as mayor, has the power to hire village attorneys as he pleases, the board is granted the right to confirm or deny appointing an attorney.
What purpose that serves is questionable, since the board actually didn’t approve of Billig’s reappointment as village attorney during the reorganizational meeting earlier this year. Billig nevertheless continued to serve as a “holdover” in essence, awaiting replacement, and still being paid the annual $40,000 salary.
Turns out Billig still feels he is the attorney, countering that Jenkins does not have the power to fire him without board approval.
“A majority of the board indicated their support for me,” Billig stated this week, noting that the mayor, the manager and at least three of the trustees had full knowledge that he would not be able to attend Monday’s meeting.
Adding that village code does not stipulate the attorney’s presence at every meeting, Billig explained that he had reviewed the agenda ahead of time and determined he wasn’t needed on Monday anyway.
But, as is often the case, that turned into a point of controversy.
“Unfortunately, too much time is wasted in the village arguing over power plays, as opposed to focusing on village business,” Billig said.
Though disappointed with the mayor’s actions, he added he still likes Jenkins.
“I think his heart is in the right place,” Billig said.
And the attorney has been in discussions with the mayor about stepping down due to other commitments and obligations.
“I was having an ongoing discussion with the board and mayor over the last couple of months over my transitioning out,” he confirmed. “... And that should be done in an orderly, professional way.”
He said other board members have some potential replacements in mind, but he hopes whomever is chosen will be agreed upon unanimously.
“My hope is that, on or before the next meeting, they’ll be able to move forward with another candidate,” Billig said.
The board, while fairly complimentary of Cohen, refused to agree to hire Cohen on Monday.
“I have no problem with Mr. Cohen,” said Marinello, “... but I’m not going to make this decision on a whim in a second. ... We need to do it sensibly.”
Schoonmaker pointed out that Cohen’s hours and potential conflicts-of-interest still need to be hashed out.
“I’m not saying Mr. Cohen is wrong for the job,” he remarked. “... There’s things we have to look at here.”
Hutchins recommended hiring Cohen on an interim basis, but the mayor ended up not making a decision on Cohen. Deputy Village Attorney Robert Gaiman remains with the village and can serve in Billig’s stead, if necessary.
Still, Jenkins was not happy with the board’s hesitation, angrily calling it a “flip-flop” from their prior refusal to confirm Billig’s appointment.
“Take me to court!” he dared the board if it chose to block a future appointment of Cohen.
When reached later in the week, Cohen wished the board had not discussed the matter in public, noting he was only interested in discussing a potential appointment, not taking the job immediately.
“There has to be agreement by all the board members about the issue of my work hours,” he explained, “because I would not permit them to conflict with my duties as county treasurer.”
Indeed, Cohen is running unopposed this fall to retain that elected post.
But Monticello is his birthplace and childhood home, not to mention the place where he’s spent a good deal of his professional life.
“I have a great desire to try and assist the village board, as well as the planning board, in helping the village move forward,” he acknowledged.
In particular, he’d like to help the boards work on village code and zoning code rewrites, with one stipulation: that people cooperate civilly.