After five years as Statesboro’s city attorney, J. Alvin Leaphart IV is heading west for a major change of scenery. He was hired recently to be county attorney for Los Alamos County, New Mexico, beginning Jan. 3.
Statesboro City Council met in closed-door session with him, with personnel one of the announced topics, during Tuesday evening’s regular meeting. He submitted a resignation letter Thursday.
In an email reply to the newspaper, Leaphart said that working with current Mayor Jan Moore, former Mayor Joe Brannen, members of the current Statesboro City Council, Deputy City Manager Robert Cheshire, recently with City Manager Randy Wetmore and with others “too numerous to name” has given him “an enjoyable professional experience.”
“Over the last few years the courage and competence of many of these people has taken the city to a much better place,” Leaphart wrote. “My hope is that I have contributed, in some way, to the integrity and professionalism of this community’s current city government that will enable the city to weather what the future holds.”
Statesboro’s mayor and council hired Leaphart to be the city’s one staff attorney in December 2011 with an initial annual salary of $72,000. He received a raise to $80,000 in a May 2014 contract renegotiation that also gave him a recognized right to do legal work for other clients.
Leaphart worked with the firm Wright & Edwards while remaining city attorney.
Alcohol law legacy
Besides advising officials and representing the city in legal matters, Leaphart drafted changes to several ordinances and regulations.
One, a complete replacement of the Alcoholic Beverages Ordinance, was a recurring topic for three years as he drafted revisions with input from the council, mayor and public. The process began when Leaphart went to the Bulloch County Superior Court in 2013 to shut down two nightclubs after a shooting death at each and repeated gun violence.
A tragedy at a third former nightclub has caused continuing repercussions. The death of Georgia Southern University student Michael Gatto, 18, after he was punched in the head by bouncer and fellow GSU student Grant James Spencer, then 20, at Rude Rudy’s in August 2014 prompted a city self-investigation into enforcement of underage drinking, which Leaphart helped conduct.
The city or its insurers have obtained outside, specialized attorneys to defend it in the wrongful death suit filed by Gatto’s parents last month. That was also the approach in the wrongful firing suit brought by former City Manager Frank Parker and settled with a $120,000 payment to Parker and his attorneys by the city’s insurers in February, with no admission of wrongdoing by either party.
But Leaphart has served as a liaison to the outside firms while continuing to advise city officials on other matters.
During the open session of Tuesday’s meeting, he reviewed how City Council will conduct its first compliance hearings under the new Alcohol Ordinance, which was finally adopted this year and took effect July 1.
Leaphart’s resignation has been offered effective Dec. 31, but he is taking some vacation time, making Dec. 16 his expected last day on the job.
“I do sincerely appreciate the professional opportunity that was given to me to serve in this position,” he said. “It has been exceptionally challenging at times in ways that I could not have predicted. So, it’s been an adventure of sorts. That adventure has led to a new opportunity, and that fills me with a real sense of gratitude for my time here.”
Getting married, too
It is a season of changes for Leaphart.
He and fiancée Erica Smith, who is originally from Macon but has lived here for several years and worked in retail management in the area, plan to marry in a family ceremony at St. Marys next weekend.
Then, in December, they will drive by way of New Orleans and San Antonio to their new home community in mountainous northern New Mexico.
Los Alamos County is the smallest in area in New Mexico and has fewer than 18,000 people. But it is the home of Los Alamos National Laboratory, founded during World War II as a then-secret U.S. government installation where later stages in the development of the atomic bomb were carried out.
Incorporated like a city, Los Alamos County is wealthy for its size and has topped at least one published list of best places to live in America.
“It’s a beautiful place,” Leaphart said by phone. “It’s a pretty good deal, and I’m pretty happy it fell out of the sky.”
But he acknowledged that he had been actively looking for a job out west. As county attorney, he will head an office with two other attorneys.
Originally from Jesup, Leaphart received his law degree in 1999 from Georgia State University College of Law in Atlanta after first attaining a bachelor’s degree with honors, majoring in philosophy, also at Georgia State.
He will retain ties to southeastern Georgia, where several family members have achieved recognition in medicine, law and city government.
His sister, Dr. Wilfreida Lynn Leaphart, is director of maternal-fetal medicine at Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah. Their father, J. Alvin Leaphart Jr., has practiced law in Jesup for more than 50 years and still does.
The Dr. J. Alvin Leaphart Sr. Memorial Bridge, spanning the Altamaha River on U.S. Highway 301 near Jesup, was named more that 50 years ago for the departing city attorney’s grandfather, a physician who founded a hospital in Jesup and served as Jesup’s mayor and on its council.
Mayor Jan Moore said Statesboro was “very blessed” to have Leaphart as city attorney for the length of time that it did.
“He has been a very bright, conscientious, thoughtful city attorney who always did the right thing while at the same time maintaining the city’s best interests,” Moore said. “History will show that the city of Statesboro will be indebted to Alvin Leaphart, and I mean that.”
The council may appoint an interim city attorney, but no decision has been made, she said.
“The city will most likely put someone in that position for an interim period of time while the legal needs of the city are reviewed to figure out the best way to meet those needs,” Moore said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.