One thing Judge Richard Moore and Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy’s attorney agreed upon: “If it was possible under the law and there was one person who should pay on this meritless claim, it would be Jason Kessler,” said Pam Starsia, who represented Bellamy when Kessler petitioned to remove him from office for offensive tweets Bellamy made before taking office.
Kessler’s petition was thrown out March 8 after Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Doucette determined it had an insufficient number of valid signatures.
Starsia is seeking $7,588 in legal fees for nearly 30 hours of work at $250 an hour for representing Bellamy, and she had a court hearing today about her bill.
She cited state code that allows public officials to seek attorney’s fees in cases that are “dismissed in favor of the respondent,” and she said the statute was important public policy because it allows elected officials to fulfill their duties without intimidation and the distraction of unsubstantiated removal proceedings.
Doucette didn’t disagree with Starsia on the public policy aspect, but he did on whether Bellamy was the prevailing party in a nonsuit. “We would submit that since there was no judgment in favor of the respondent—” and because Kessler could refile his petition—there is no provision to provide attorney fees in nonsuits, he said.
Starsia argued that the nonsuit was indeed in Bellamy’s favor, and to not award his legal fees “undermines the purpose of the statute.”
Judge Moore said at least three times in Charlottesville Circuit Court that if he could assess Kessler for attorney fees, he would. “Mr. Kessler gets a free ride and the city is held responsible,” Moore said. That protection for petition filers “encourages reckless behavior if he doesn’t have to pay,” he added.
Moore said he would read other court rulings before making a ruling.