TRAVERSE CITY — There's not much time to answer a developer's legal challenge against Traverse City's voter-initiated tall buildings challenge, and the city attorney wants commissioners to hire outside help.

Lauren Trible-Laucht, Traverse City's attorney, said as much in a memo to commissioners that went out Friday as a late addition to the Monday meeting agenda. She cited her office's current workload, and that her past opinion on the city charter amendment creating the vote requirement would require her to step aside on the matter anyway.

"Prior to the charter amendment being adopted I gave a legal opinion regarding its validity, which was my duty to do," she wrote. "I realize that the previous opinion creates an appearance of a conflict of interest, that should disqualify me from being involved."

Developer Tom McIntyre's LLC, called 326 Land Company, again wants a judge to demolish the charter amendment.

The city has until Jan. 2 to respond to the company's complaint, Trible-Laucht wrote. A message for her wasn't returned Friday.

Mayor Jim Carruthers said he's surprised the city attorney is asking to step aside from the case, as commissioners hired her to defend the city against such legal challenges.

"But if she doesn't feel she's capable or willing or has a different opinion, that's something we're going to have to consider," he said.

Commissioner Tim Werner said he's sympathetic to Trible-Laucht's request. Traverse City has lots going on for a city of its size, so he trusts Trible-Laucht to make the call if she thinks it makes sense to share the workload.

Werner said he's not concerned by Trible-Laucht's contention that she should disqualify herself from the case.

The company's latest complaint, filed in 13th Circuit Court Wednesday, is similar to what the company and its attorneys argued in 2017: the charter amendment violates state law and a judge should declare it illegal, bar the city from enforcing it and order commissioners to wipe it from the books.

Thomas Power, 13th Circuit Court judge, ruled in July 2017 that the developer filed its suit prematurely, and state Court of Appeals judges later agreed.

McIntyre previously said voters' rejection of his request to build the project in November makes the case ripe for a judge to decide.

Trible-Laucht had told commissioners that she believed the proposed charter amendment in Proposal 3 on the city's November 2016 ballot likely wasn't legally valid. The state Attorney General's office and others voiced the same opinion, but Save Our Downtown organizers and other ballot question supporters thought it legally defensible.

Her statement, and those of other commissioners skeptical of the charter amendment, spurred allegations of bias from Save Our Downtown attorneys, claims they denied.

But Power's suggestion that the city hire outside counsel prompted city commissioners to tab attorneys Jim Young and Doug Van Essen. Commissioners later balked at their legal bills and picked Trible-Laucht, then acting city Attorney Karrie Zeits, to handle the case in the Court of Appeals.

Van Essen offered to represent the city again for no more than $10,000, plus $1,000 per discovery item and $2,000 per deposition, Trible-Laucht wrote. She suggested either selecting him because of his familiarity with the case, or one of two larger firms in the area whose attorneys could formulate a quick response.

Carruthers agreed that Van Essen's familiarity with the case makes him a good choice, but he's open to other possibilities.

Commissioner Michele Howard said she would rather ask other local attorneys familiar with the issue for their help.

"I think we had experiences with him last time that made me think that it would be wise to look at some of our own counsel, someone who's here in town that maybe knows it and knows the situation," she said.

Grant Parsons, an attorney for Save Our Downtown, said he's conferred with other organization members and they're weighing when and how to intervene in the new suit as they did in the first one. Power allowed them to step in and defend the charter amendment, and Court of Appeals judges agreed.

McIntyre previously said he wouldn't object to a new request, and Carruthers and Howard agreed with Trible-Laucht's suggestion to let the group intervene.

Voters' adopting the charter amendment, then defeating McIntyre's project, should be enough to convince city commissioners to seek a "global" solution to the tall buildings issue, Parsons said.

"We hope there's a political solution to this instead of another long, drawn-out lawsuit, but I can't comment on what that political solution is right now," Parsons said.

But Werner, Carruthers and Howard said they believe it was inevitable the city would end up in court again.

"I think both sides feel legally justified in this situation, and I'm not a lawyer so I'm not going to guess, but it sure seems like the way we're going to have to go for a little while," Howard said.

City Government Reporter