EDITORIAL: City attorney: An excellent pick

September 20, 2012

Savannah Morning News

SAVANNAH CITY Council changes attorneys only slightly less often than it refurbishes the gold dome atop City Hall.

But in just 30 days, a rare changing of the legal guard will take place: Longtime City Attorney James B. Blackburn will step down, and W. Brooks Stillwell will step up.

On Thursday, the mayor and City Council unanimously named Mr. Stillwell city attorney, one of just three positions that elected officials are allowed to fill under Savannah’s council-manager form of government (the other two posts are city manager and clerk of council).

He’s an excellent hire.

Mr. Stillwell, a partner at Savannah’s largest law firm, HunterMaclean, knows the city, knows the politics, knows the issues and, most importantly, knows the law. He’s also shown through his service on other important boards, such as the Savannah Economic Development Authority, that he’s committed to improving the community.

Such a combination of experience, knowledge, judgment and desire is hard to beat. He shouldn’t just be the hired help. He should be an asset to the mayor and council, as well as to the city manager and rest of the staff.

The process of changing city attorneys began earlier this year, after Mayor Edna Jackson and the new council were sworn in. It wasn’t approached lightly. Mr. Blackburn, 86, has had a long, distinguished career with the city — a total of 55 years, with the last 42 years as city attorney. Just recently, he correctly blew the whistle on a discriminatory contract proposal that could have bought the city big legal trouble.

City officials were smart to involve Mr. Blackburn, who announced his retirement on April 19, in assisting the council with a transition plan. His knowledge of municipal law in Georgia is legendary. His loyalty to the city is just as strong now as it was a half-century ago.

He leaves big shoes to fill. Fortunately, his successor seems to have sufficiently-sized feet.

Mr. Stillwell, 67, served as a city alderman from 1974 to 1991, including a year as mayor pro tem. He also ran unsuccessfully for mayor. During his time in office, he developed the reputation as a thoughtful, studious member of council, as well as a team player.

In private life, he worked at a law firm whose attorneys have represented countless clients who appear before public boards, including City Council. That’s why officials were right to take steps to make sure no conflicts of interest exist before he comes on board with the city. His legal experience includes real estate and business — two areas that should prove useful to him in his new position.

Whether Mr. Stillwell will serve as long as Mr. Blackburn will be up to future City Councils, as well as his own stamina. If elected officials are wise, they will follow a top rule of an attorney-client relationship, one that generally served the city well for most of the past 50 years: Do what your lawyer tells you to do.