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Just when it looked safe to unpack the office tchotchkes at City Hall, the Virginia Supreme Court has decided to hear an appeal of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's claim that he can fire City Council staffers. A three-judge panel of the court decided after a May 18 hearing that the full court will hear the case. The panel's decision was issued from the bench and the date for the hearing has not been set, a court official says, adding that it likely won't be scheduled before the fall or early winter. If the court date is set for after Nov. 4, Richmonders will have chosen a successor to Wilder. But Scott Oostdyk, an attorney with McGuireWoods, Wilder's outside legal counsel, says whoever is or will be mayor is immaterial to the question of who has hiring and firing powers. "There's no deadline for this," Oostdyk says. "This is not personal. This is the office of mayor - not Doug Wilder exclusively.?VbCrLf That may seem hard to believe: The case is among a triad of lawsuits against the Wilder administration filed by either City Council or the School Board. Wilder's attempted eviction of the School Board last year, his attempted firing of council staff and his withholding of budgeted School Board funds all have been the subject of lawsuits, with Wilder promising to pursue each to the state Supreme Court. Last year the court declined to hear an appeal of the School Board funding issue, essentially handing a victory to Wilder, who has promised also to appeal the eviction case. This latest case began in April 2007, when Wilder claimed the administration's authority to hire and fire 54 city employees, including council staff and the city assessor's office personnel. In November, Circuit Court Judge Margaret P. Spencer called the assumption of such power "absurd,?VbCrLf declaring his assertion "null and void.?VbCrLf Oostdyk says all three cases are about three fundamentals of government under the new at-large-mayor city charter: the powers of budget, employment and real estate. "Maybe because of the circumstances, the [questions] got drawn in traumatic fashion, but they're just institutional power-sharing issues under a new form of government,?VbCrLf he says, calling it normal operating procedure for issues of authority under new governmental systems to be arbitrated by the courts. Not everyone agrees that the court's authority to use judicial review is meant to extend to every nuance of a new municipal government system. "That's just a justification for hundreds of thousands of dollars in pointless legal bills. ?Ý The charter is clear, Judge Spencer said it's clear,?VbCrLf says Paul Goldman, a former Wilder adviser who helped write the charter and who is running for the mayor seat he helped create. Indeed, just in the three cases involving Wilder, City Council and the School Board, litigation costs are fast approaching the million-dollar price tag. As of May 23, outside legal fees amassed by the warring factions at City Hall and the School Board have passed the $1 million mark. City Council and the mayor's cost for outside legal counsel now stands at more than $900,000. The School Board's costs have exceeded $135,000. Of the city's $900,000 total, $656,246.19 was spent just during the current fiscal year. Arguing whether Wilder has hire/fire authority has so far cost taxpayers more than $435,000. - C.D.
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