Gerald Cooley, the longtime city attorney who oversaw a groundbreaking lawsuit that allowed the city to reject plans for a controversial “cornfield mall,” is leaving his city post at the end of the year.
Cooley announced his pending retirement as city attorney on Thursday.
“Soon I will be 79 years old and will have 59 years in the practice,” Cooley said. “It is just time to stop worrying about whether I get up promptly in the morning.”
City Manager David Corliss said Toni Wheeler, the city’s director of the legal department, will assume the title of city attorney.
“The citizens of Lawrence should join me in expressing their appreciation for Jerry’s outstanding service to our community,” Corliss said. “His decades of work define dedicated public service conducted with the highest integrity.”
Cooley has served as the city attorney since 1988, but began working as an assistant city attorney in the mid-1960s under his law partner and longtime City Attorney Milton Allen. In those days, the assistant role meant that he also served as the city’s prosecutor. Cooley was responsible for prosecuting many violations that resulted from the civil unrest on the Kansas University campus and in the city during the late 1960s.
“I looked at the Penn State debacle on the news this morning, and it brought back a lot of memories in terms of the unrest,” Cooley said. “It takes a long time for an institution to overcome those type of scars.”
But Cooley said his biggest case may have come in the 1980s when a Cleveland-based development firm sought to build a suburban mall in southern Lawrence. The development proposal sparked opposition from political leaders concerned that the mall would damage Downtown Lawrence. Cooley said he remembers then-City Manager Buford Watson asking him how the city could legally deny the project.
“I remember telling him that I had no idea,” Cooley said. “We flew by the seat of our pants. We couldn’t find a ruling that supported us, but we thought it was our city and we ought to be able to govern it.”
The city ultimately prevailed in the matter, and the case established significant precedent regarding a city’s ability to guide its growth through a strong comprehensive plan.
In the early 1990s, Cooley also defended the city in its efforts to deny a for-profit hospital a permit to develop in the city, after concerns were expressed it would damage the city’s not-for-profit hospital.
In both cases, the city ended up holding massive public hearings — the mall hearing was held in a packed junior high auditorium, and the hospital hearing was at the Lawrence Holidome banquet room.
“I always felt those were good examples of how the city ought to do things,” Cooley said. “Government ought to be open and let the public really talk about the issues that are of an overwhelming importance to the public.”
Cooley will continue to serve through the end of the year. He said he plans to keep his law license, and may do occasional work on a contract basis for the city.