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Rebecca Green | SBJ

A Conversation With ... Jordan Paul

City Attorney, City of Springfield

Posted online

Why did you want to pursue this role at the city after serving as the assistant city attorney in Joplin and city attorney in Neosho?
I was in Joplin for right about 10 years and then came into this opportunity. The city of Joplin’s a really good employer. I wasn’t actively looking for a new position, but I think it’s important to always be open to new possibilities. Someone had sent me the job posting. I applied really with just wanting to know more about the organization, wanting to know more about [City Manager] Jason [Gage] specifically since he’d be my boss, and just kind of see where it went. During the interview process, learned a lot about both of those things and the city’s got a lot of neat things going on.

What’s the role of the city attorney?
You’re the general counsel to the city. The city is what we would call an organizational client, which means it acts through a body, which would be the council in this case. So, your primary client, even though I work for Jason and he’s my boss, is the City Council. They have the ability to direct us to prepare ordinances or research things or give opinions. Right behind that is making sure that you take care of anything that the manager needs you to do. Supporting him and then supporting other departments. Of course, we also oversee the municipal court, specifically the prosecutor’s office.

Since starting your role on Jan. 2, have you discussed the proposed rule about banning or restricting access to certain individuals to city property as it relates to misbehavior? There were some concerns voiced by residents that this might be a civil rights issue or folks that have a disability may be unfairly barred from city property for what’s deemed misbehavior.
It’s something that we’re continuing to look at. It certainly wouldn’t be the intent to create any kind of a disproportionate impact. But by the same token, the whole reason I think the city was looking at it is because some of the staff was being subjected to behavior that was just frankly inappropriate, certain patrons that were being verbally abusive. I think everybody would agree that at a certain point you should have the ability to ask someone to leave. I don’t know what the final draft will look like. There are various constitutional protections we have to make sure that we comply with. But just so everyone understands what the motivating factor is, it’s just that you don’t want your front-line workers to be subject to abuse.

Your first presentation to council on Jan. 8 was on two proposals that will go to the April election and potentially change our city charter. Can you outline those proposals?
You have the one dealing with the election of the mayor, and there’s I guess been some interest in having that position go from two years to four years with an eight-year cap. It was suggested [by councilmembers] some pros might be that the mayor doesn’t have to be looking at the next election and maybe has a little more time to get settled and learn if it’s a new mayor. On the other side, as some other councilmembers pointed out, it’s harder to change the composition of council if the majority is not up every term. On the conflicts question, that I think has been floating around for two years. The change does three things. There’s actually no requirement in the code right now that the council have a code of ethics. There are provisions, they’re just not as comprehensive. Even though it’s not in the charter, council has adopted a code of ethics. What the amendment does is first it says this is required, now you have to adopt a code of ethics and you have to look at it at least every other year. The other thing is the code of ethics right now just covers council members and boards and commissions. There actually isn’t a code of ethics, and again that’s not to say there aren’t other provisions and of course there are state law provisions. I don’t want people to think there are no rules, but there’s strictly speaking not a code of ethics that is specific to officers or employees. This also requires that a code provision be adopted. The second thing it does is right now, if you violate that provision, you’re subject to forfeiture. It really doesn’t require any kind of due process for the most part. You are out. And the council decided not to change forfeiture for themselves because they didn’t want to loosen the restrictions on themselves. But it had kind of created some issues with employees. The only remedy was they had to be terminated. One thing that this change will do is instead of it being an automatic forfeiture, it sends it over to the city manager’s office to be subject to the normal disciplinary process. The third thing is it creates what’s called a safe harbor provision for both employees and council members, which is if you go to the city attorney’s office and you say, “I want to do this thing, can I do it or can I not do it?” And the city attorney’s office says, “We don’t think this would be a violation of the code.” They do it. Someone else challenges it. And a court later says, ‘Well, your city attorney’s opinion was wrong, or at least that’s not my interpretation as a judge.” Therefore, the forfeiture provision applies. This would actually give them a defense to say, “I tried to do what was right here. I got legal advice and I followed it.” As long as that is in good faith, as long as they disclosed all the material facts, there would be the option not to have to forfeit their office or employment.

Tell me about your background and the transition to coming to Springfield.
I'm southwest Missouri born and raised. My dad's family is from the Joplin area. My mom's family is actually from Springfield. I grew up here for the most part. I went on to Mizzou for undergrad and law school. I kind of fell into my first job, which was the assistant city attorney in Joplin, and didn't know municipal law was a field. It's not something they teach a course on in law school. My dad's a lawyer and when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, he said, "I'm going to go to a commissioner's hearing today. Why don't you tag along and it'd be a good learning experience for you." A commissioner's hearing is part of the condemnation process. He was representing the property owner, but that's where basically the city's filed to acquire the land and so the city and the owner have picked three people to decide what the takings worth and you just kind of sit around a conference room like this and you talk about your valuation versus their valuation. In that process I met who was then the assistant city attorney who became the city attorney about a month later. I ran into him in court not long thereafter, and he said, "Well, I'm looking for an assistant, you should apply." I applied. I got the job.

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