DUARTE — James Coughlin served on the City Council for 19 years before resigning in April so that he could be considered for appointment as city attorney.
One month later, the council announced that Coughlin had been selected for the job.
But last week, the council changed its mind and decided to hire someone else as city attorney.
Council members are refusing to say why the decision was made, and Coughlin, who is out of town, could not be reached for comment.
But he was not among the three people who were invited back for interviews by the council last Tuesday. It took members only 10 minutes to decide in closed session to hire John Lawson, deputy city attorney for El Monte.
"This is a squirrelly situation, and I don't know what is going on," said Councilman Mervin Money, a political ally of Coughlin.
The council announced in May that Coughlin had been appointed to the post and would assume his new duties July 1. But Mayor John Van Doren now says that he never considered the appointment official because a contract had not been signed.
The council had been considering paying Coughlin on an hourly basis, and Van Doren said Coughlin presented the city with a proposed agreement. But Van Doren would not say whether the council members changed their mind because of a disagreement over pay.
"The council reconsidered their position, and that is all I can say," Van Doren said.
The council voted to hire Lawson and pay him a $2,500 monthly retainer beginning Aug. 1, when Lawson will start work.
Lawson, who had lost out to Coughlin when the council made its original choice, would not comment.
The job opened in March when William Camil, who had been city attorney for 26 years, announced that he would resign effective June 30.
The council began interviewing candidates, and Coughlin, 60, expressed interest. In April, he resigned from the council, saying that it was necessary if he were to be considered for the post.
Coughlin said then that he had not intended to run for reelection in November and that he wanted to leave the policy-making area of city government. He had previously served as assistant city attorney for Santa Fe Springs and Commerce.
The council suspended its search for a city attorney while it sought a replacement on the council for Coughlin. Ed Beranek, who lost to incumbents Coughlin and Money in 1984, was appointed to the seat. Beranek did not participate in the city attorney interviews, although he was on the council by the time Coughlin was named to the post in May.
Early this month the council announced that it was reconsidering its decision and would re-interview former candidates for the job before its meeting last Tuesday.
Councilman John Hitt said he had always thought it was improper to name Coughlin city attorney until Beranek had a chance to interview all the candidates. "But I was overruled at that time," Hitt said.
Beranek participated in the interviews and selection Tuesday but left the meeting early and could not be reached for comment.
Councilman Terry Michaelis would not comment "because this was done in closed session (as a personnel matter), and I don't want to hurt any of the parties involved."
Van Doren would not say whether the vote for Lawson was unanimous.
Lawson, 42, has been deputy city attorney of El Monte since 1981. He said he would like to retain a part-time legal position in that city.
A resident of Victorville, Lawson worked for the Los Angeles Police Department before graduating from Glendale University College of Law in 1978.