Durango City Council has found a new city attorney, bringing an end to a monthslong search for the right person for the role as the city grapples with a heavy legal workload intensified by tension between councilors.
Mark Morgan, who served as the city attorney of Gretna, Louisiana, for almost 15 years, will be officially hired during Tuesday’s City Council meeting and is scheduled to begin work on May 1, a city news release said.
In an interview on Friday, Morgan said he has experience in everything from testifying to the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., to defending a small-town mayor in a case involving a simple car crash.
Infighting, ethics complaints and arguments that have played out at recent City Council meetings don’t intimidate him, he said.
“Certainly, they’re going through some transition,” he said. “I’m not intimidated or scared of that type of conflict. I’ve dealt with far worse.”
Morgan has handled more than 1,800 cases in civil and criminal courts, the release says.
City Council held a special meeting on March 20 to interview candidates for the position. During the meeting, candidates were asked 15 questions agreed upon by each council member. Questions ranged from how to handle sensitive political challenges to navigating procedural obstacles and working with the council when it is divided on issues.
When asked about his ability to handle sensitive political issues, he provided several examples of uncomfortable or difficult situations.
He said in one case, a chief administrative officer had to be fired once it was discovered she hadn’t paid her water bill in 10 years (her father was the director of the water department). She immediately paid the entire balance owed, but didn’t understand why her actions were grounds for termination.
In another scenario, a litigious lawyer harassed the town with lawsuits and accusations after Morgan had the man’s fence taken down because it was twice as tall as allowed by the town code and the man had no interest in complying.
And in another case, a councilman ended up going to federal prison after an investigation with the FBI. Morgan had to work with the FBI to explain town code and how the councilman’s behavior was criminally inappropriate.
Morgan doesn’t just know law. He knows politics too. In an interview Friday with The Durango Herald, he said he understands the politics of city councilors because he was elected five times to the Jefferson Parish School District school board, one of the largest school boards in Louisiana. He said he was tapped to be the president of the school board four times.
And, he knows better than to get involved in politics, he said during his interview with City Council.
“Sometimes I believe it’s just not the attorney’s job to get involved in the politics,” he said. “... I know how to stay out of the politics, but I know how to intervene if it’s a legal issue or procedure to make you guys look good.”
He said the city’s most significant challenges are its growth as it transitions from being a small town to a mid-sized city as well as “governmental pains.” And he recommends the city update its charter because it contains outdated language, noting masculine pronouns are prominent and feminine pronouns are not.
“He brings significant years of legal expertise at the municipal level and we are excited to welcome him to our community,” Mayor Barbara Noseworthy said in the release.
The city has struggled with its attorney’s office since Oct. 19 when former city attorney Dirk Nelson resigned with no warning. The city then hired Tony Maestas on an interim basis, but he parted ways in early January. More recently, the city has been relying on the services of interim city attorney Bill Tuthill.
Morgan earned a bachelor’s degree in education with cum laude and Academic All-Conference distinctions at Ohio University, the release says. He won the James A. Wysoki Award for excellence in trial advocacy at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. After graduating, he was offered a teaching position at Tulane and became “the youngest graduate ever” to be offered the opportunity.
Morgan has two daughters and one son. His wife is a surgeon and they have owned a place in Telluride for about five years and are no strangers to the region, he said. He is also a pilot and a plane owner and will be searching for a hanger to store his plane as he settles into the community.
“I rented an apartment walking-distance from City Hall to be as accessible as possible the first six months,” he said.