Airport attorney’s role, bills questioned

Published: Saturday, May 11, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

ROCK FALLS – Longtime attorney David Murray has represented the Whiteside County Airport for about four decades.

But his role goes beyond the legal realm. He performs bookkeeping tasks, drafts the budget, and prepares the monthly minutes for airport board meetings.

Now, though, some Whiteside County Board members are questioning Murray’s role. They wonder why the airport board needs its own attorney. And they ask why the airport is paying Murray $175 an hour for clerical work such as preparing meeting minutes for airport board meetings.

In the past year, Murray received $16,863 from the county, about what he gets each year.

Click here to see invoices from Murray since April 2011.

Murray, who recently moved to Florida and plans to spend half his time there, noted the airport has no employees and has been frugal with taxpayers’ dollars. While in Florida, he takes part in meetings by phone.

“My bills are about $16,000 or $17,000 a year,” Murray said in a phone call from Florida. “They couldn’t hire a secretary for that.”

Murray, 77, joined the law firm now known as Ward, Murray, Pace & Johnson in Sterling in 1961. He retired from full-time work about 3 years ago, but remains associated with the firm.

Murray defends his record as an attorney, saying he has never been the target of an ethical complaint or malpractice lawsuit.

He also said the airport has not been sued during his years of service.

Glenn Truesdell, D-Rock Falls, chairman of the County Board’s Finance Committee, said the airport board has no contract with Murray.

“He functions as board secretary. He keeps minutes and other records. And he’s been doing that from his home in Florida,” Truesdell said. “He hasn’t attended at least the last four meetings. He is paid $175 an hour for talking on the phone [at board meetings].”

That arrangement, Truesdell said, is “ a pretty good gig” for Murray.

County Board member Sue Britt, D-Morrison, said the board would like to know more about the attorney’s role.

“We don’t understand,” she said.

‘There’s an art to keeping minutes’

At last month’s County Board meeting, State’s Attorney Trish Joyce answered questions about the airport board and its attorney. She advised members that the airport board has the right to hire an attorney and make its own decisions.

The County Board has powers, too. It drafts the airport’s budget and appoints its board members.

Another semi-autonomous county agency is the Health Department, but it goes to the state’s attorney for legal advice, as do other departments.

Joyce presented a legal opinion to Sauk Valley Media that showed that a health department could have its own attorney, though, unlike with airport boards, state law doesn’t specifically authorize all health departments to hire lawyers.

As for the airport’s budget, Truesdell said the county would take an “extensive” look at it this year, noting it has more than $1 million in cash reserves.

During the average month, Murray spends about four-fifths of an hour drafting minutes, which amounts to $140. A former secretary from Ward, Murray, Pace & Johnson helps him with some of the clerical functions, getting $35 an hour. For instance, he said, she polishes up his meeting minutes.

“There’s an art to keeping minutes,” Murray said. “You can get the whole story in the minutes. I’m really proud of the way I take minutes. I don’t like minutes that don’t include much and then you have to seek out five other documents.”

‘I’m now a happy Florida resident’

Earlier this year, Murray announced that he was an official Florida resident. He sent a letter to state House Speaker Michael Madigan, blaming the speaker and the Democratic Party for “trash[ing] Illinois so badly that we finally decided to leave.” He accused the Democrats of creating a “financial morass of unfunded pension obligations, unpaid state bills and underfunded public education.”

“I’m now a happy Florida resident but a sad former Illinoisan,” Murray wrote Madigan.

He sent a copy of that letter to Sauk Valley Media – excerpts of which were printed in January.

Truesdell questioned whether the airport board should have an attorney who is a Florida resident. And he noted that Murray expressed pride in being an out-of-state resident.

Jerri Robinson, an airport board member, said she didn’t understand the concerns about Murray.

“We’ve been within budget,” she said. “He [Murray] has a vast knowledge about airports. It would be hard to find someone with that knowledge. His bills have gone down over the years.”

The airport board, she said, wasn’t wrong to have an attorney living in Florida.

“It’s perfectly legal,” she said. “There are all kinds of attorneys who are from somewhere else.”

The airport also has a contract manager, Mike Dowell of M&M Aviation, who has been in that role since 1996.

The airport’s budget is $361,000 this year, more than half of which – $189,000 – comes from the county’s property taxpayers. For a $100,000 house, that amounts to a little less than $7 each year.

A political dimension?

The tensions between the airport board and County Board members may be the result of political differences. The County Board has a Democratic majority, while the airport board leans Republican.

Robinson is chairwoman of the Whiteside County Republican Party, and Murray has contributed to GOP candidates over the years.

Last year, then-County Board Chairman Tony Arduini, D-Rock Falls, reappointed Robinson to another term on the board. But some members resisted, saying the airport was all Republican.

“We just want a couple of Democrats,” Vice Chairman Bill McGinn, D-Sterling, said at the time. “I’m not saying they [airport board members] aren’t doing a good job. We just want some of our people in there. Let’s be fair.”

Robinson was reappointed with a 17-9 vote; most such decisions are unanimous.

After Murray’s announcement of his Florida residency, some people criticized him. One said Murray had been a “hatchet man” hired by local school boards “to go after teachers during negotiations.”

Murray, who also is a pilot, said he continues as the airport attorney because the board wants his services. He said he enjoys working with its members.

“I spend considerably more time on the airport than I bill for,” he said. “I don’t need the money.”

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