City attorney decision discussed by Whitener, Thomas-Haight


BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – Following the recent hiring of new Blue Ridge city attorney, James A. Balli, at the Jan. 9 city council meeting, Mayor Donna Whitener and Councilwoman Rhonda Thomas-Haight spoke with FetchYourNews about some of the details regarding the city’s decision to replace former city attorney David Syfan with Balli.

Providing specific reasons for replacing Syfan, both Whitener and Thomas-Haight expressed the need for a change in representation.  “(Syfan’s) been with the city for 20 years,” Thomas-Haight stated. “It’s time for a change. Of course, every four years, we appoint that position, and (with) the new council, we just felt like it was time for a change.”

“As I’ve mentioned several times, I felt like (Syfan) didn’t represent the entire group (of the mayor and council members),” Whitener added. “I want a city attorney that works for all six of us and for the city and the citizens.”

The mayor went on to clarify that Balli has not represented any of the city council members or herself previously. She said, “Of course, that became a little bit of an issue … (The new council) felt like they wanted somebody that represented all of us on an equal playing field.”

Mayor Donna Whitener, left, City Attorney James Balli and Councilwoman Rhonda Thomas-Haight attend the Jan. 9 Blue Ridge City Council meeting.

During the city council meeting, in which Balli was hired, Whitener explained that four candidates, in addition to Syfan, applied for the position of city attorney. Balli was inevitably hired at a reduced rate of $175 per hour with a rate of $200 per hour for time spent representing the city in court. Among the other attorneys who applied for the position were local attorneys Lynn Doss and Cortney Stuart, whose clients include Fannin County and city of McCaysville, respectively, and Atlanta attorney Kelly Michael Hundley, who currently represents the city of Hiram, Georgia, according to information obtained from the city of Blue Ridge.

Doss, who, according to Whitener and Thomas-Haight, withdrew her application from consideration prior to the council meeting, had offered her services to the city at the per-hour rate of $175. Stuart offered a rate of $150 per hour with a $100 monthly retainer fee. Hundley proposed a rate of $150 per hour with a $175 per hour rate for legal proceeding representation.

Though Syfan’s previous per-hour rate of $95 was considerably lower than that of Balli’s current rate, Thomas-Haight explained, “I know sometimes it appeared, in my opinion, as if projects seemed to take a long time.”

In regard to the potential hiring of Stuart, Whitener explained that the Georgia Municipal Association, which provides legislative advocacy and consulting services to member cities, had advised the city against such a relationship citing a potential representational conflict of interest.

The mayor further explained that the proper channels of advertisement for the position were utilized through publication in the legal organ. Whitener also stated that she, as well as all incoming city council members except Harold Herndon, had a chance to meet with Balli individually ahead of the meeting in order to make a determination to hire Balli. Whitener stated Herndon was unable to meet with Balli during any of the attorney’s trips to Blue Ridge due to illness.

“I felt good about (meeting with Balli) because he took the time to reach out to us and wanted to meet us and make sure we all could mesh together if we did choose his firm,” Thomas-Haight said.

“Mr. Balli seems to be a good fit for our city,” Thomas-Haight continued. “He is anxious to work with us, and we seem to all be on the same page with how we want to move forward with the city. He wants to be involved in our council meetings and that was a definite plus because Mr. Syfan, even though the charter states that the (city) attorney shall attend the meetings, he had only been to – to my recollection – five (meetings) in eight years.”

Whitener stated Balli has municipal experience and familiarity with water management. According to Balli’s submitted resume to the city, he currently serves as a board member on the Cobb-Marietta Water Authority.

“Becky (Harkins, director of Blue Ridge Water and Utilities department) was extremely impressed because of his water knowledge, and we’re really working on our policies and procedures, so she felt like he would be very beneficial to us in getting those standards to where they need to be,” Mayor Whitener continued.

So who is James A. Balli?

According to Balli’s resume, he received a B.S. in political science from Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia, in 1996 and later received his Juris Doctorate from the Walter F. George School of Law at Mercer University in 1999. Also in 1999, Balli was admitted to the State Bar of Georgia and in 2000 was admitted to the State Bar of Alabama.

Balli served in the United States Air Force Reserve from 1992 to 2000 at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.

Balli currently serves as commissioner on the seven-member Judicial Qualifications Commission of Georgia, which investigates allegations of judicial misconduct of all judges in the state of Georgia. He also currently serves as a board member of the Kennesaw State University Masters of Public Administration Advisory Board where he provides advice and direction to masters’ program students and faculty. Balli has been admitted to practice before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals, the Georgia Court of Appeals, the Alabama Supreme Court, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, the Middle Districts of Georgia and Alabama, and the Northern District of Georgia.

Among his recent experience, Balli represented the Atlanta Braves during the organization’s recent move from Fulton County to Cobb County, and his other recent clients have included (David) Ralston for Representative, Inc., BrandsMart USA, and the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners.

Balli is a partner at the Marietta law firm Sams, Larkin, Huff & Balli, LLP, which has represented both county governments on related development issues and commercial and private interests on a variety of issues involving elected officials from state, county and municipal governments.

Commenting on his new position with the city, Balli stated, “I am honored to have the opportunity to serve the citizens of Blue Ridge and to work with the mayor and city council as they work to serve the citizens as well. I think Blue Ridge is the best small town in the state of Georgia, and I am excited to be a part of it moving forward.”

Continue to follow FetchYourNews as we plan to produce a six-month financial comparison of the previous city attorney fees to that of the current city attorney in mid-July.


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Jason Beck

Born in Merrillville, Indiana, raised in Cleveland, Tennessee, and currently resides in Copperhill, Tennessee. Graduated from Bradley Central High School in 1996 and attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, eventually earning a B.A. and M.A. in English. Hobbies include hiking, camping and fly-fishing. Interests include baseball, hockey and cliff jumping.

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