The County Commission voted 7-4 on Wednesday not to pay a projected $60,000 in legal expenses for County Attorney Rheubin Taylor after earlier cutting off additional funds to the lawyer for County Mayor Weston Wamp.
County Attorney Taylor filed suit in Chancery Court after the new county mayor sent him a termination letter and he refused to step down.
A $24,500 payment was made earlier from county funds to Wamp attorney Barret Albritton. After a $25,000 spending limit without commission approval, the county mayor had to go to the County Commission for approval to spend more.
The Commission did agree to continue to make payments to its attorney, John Konvalinka. The anticipated amount was listed at $25,000.
The vote to continue paying the firm of Thomas and Thomas had yes votes from Commissioners David Sharpe, Greg Beck, Joe Graham and Steve Highlander. Voting no were Commissioners Mike Chauncey, Jeff Eversole, Lee Helton, Warren Mackey, Gene-o Shipley, Ken Smith and Chip Baker.
Commissioner Sharpe said, "Are we asking him (County Attorney Taylor) to defend our resolutions and to pay for it out of his own pocket? Is everyone okay with that. I'm not okay with that. What we just did on a 7-4 vote was ask our attorney to defend our resolutions, but to do it on his own dime."
Commissioner Highlander said one option would be to fund the some $30,000 due the Thomas firm already and not pay any going forward. He said that would be nearly equal to the amount the county paid for the Wamp expenses. However, no action was taken on that suggestion.
Commissioner Mackey said, "We have allowed the mayor to spend $29,000 plus of county money. At the same time, Mr. Taylor - is he paying out of his own pocket?"
County Attorney Taylor said he hired former Judge Neil Thomas "and I am obligated to pay him out of whatever resources I can come up with."
Commissioner Mackey said a "15-year-old kid" would know that the Taylor contract was valid.
He also said, "There are advisors to the mayor and I don't think they are serving him well. I don't think they are giving him good advice. It seems like you've got people who are not experienced in this line of work and they are saying yes to the mayor rather than giving him sound counsel.
"My concern is that Hamilton County's money is being treated like a piggy bank. I suspect people are going to be asking us to raise taxes. I'm not going to do it."
Commissioner Eversole said, "For the life of me I've never seen a situation where I feel like we as a commission are being held hostage. We are being held hostage between a county attorney, who I respect, and a county mayor, who I respect. It's kind of like we are the bankroll. We can't be the bankroll.
"This is getting expensive. It keeps growing and growing. We don't need to spend tens of thousands of dollars or hundreds of thousand of dollars on something we agreed 11-0 was right. We've said 11-0 it shouldn't be this way, so why should we pay for it?"
Commissioner Graham said, "I don't understand why we went from 11-0 to this. Our county attorney did not initiate being fired and he did not initiate having to defend himself. This is not an assault on the attorney's office. This is an assault on us. This is the executive branch saying we don't know what we're doing. The (Taylor) legal fees were incurred by the executive branch."
Commissioner Graham said County Mayor Wamp earlier said he would honor the commission's resolutions, and it was believed then that the matter was over. "We're going to lose our hammer if we do this (not covering the Taylor legal costs)."
Chairman Baker said, "Six weeks ago this should have been over. Should have been over. Yet this drags on and on and on. It's a distraction. Look at us right now. As long as they're getting paid, this moves on. Frankly, I'm beyond upset. We've been doing the business of the county, but not the right way."
Judge Thomas said the decision of the county not to pay the Taylor legal fees "will not in any way deter me from providing a zealous defense in a controversy that was initiated by the mayor and maintained by the mayor."
County Mayor Wamp said he had dropped several parts of the court case, leaving only a determination on whether the Taylor contract was valid. He said, "I am doing everything in my power to ensure that it not grow and to make it narrow."
He said the county attorney does not have a statutorily defined term but is a political appointment. He said, "I'm yet to have a lawyer tell me that we're wrong." He said it is a "gentlemanly dispute" that should not take long to get a decision. A hearing is set in early March before Chancellor Jeff Atherton.
Near the end of the meeting, Commissioner Sharpe, who is a Democrat, asked County Mayor Wamp (a Republican) why he dismissed the other counts in the lawsuit "without prejudice" - meaning they could be brought again.
County Mayor Wamp said the Sharpe questioning was "for partisan political purposes and that is totally inappropriate." He said he did not intend to respond.
He also did not answer a Sharpe question as to whether he would appeal an adverse ruling in the case.
This was the resolution that was voted down by the commission:
A RESOLUTION AMENDING RESOLUTION NO. 123-12 AS PREVIOUSLY
ADOPTED BY THIS COUNTY LEGISLATIVE BODY TO SPECIFY AN AMOUNT TO
BE ALLOCATED FROM THE COUNTY GENERAL BUDGET FOR PAYMENT TO
THOMAS & THOMAS LAW FIRM IN THEIR REPRESENTATION OF COUNTY
ATTORNEY RHEUBIN M. TAYLOR IN THE LITIGATION INVOLVING THE
COUNTY MAYOR'S UNILATERAL ATTEMPTS TO TERMINATE THE SERVICES
OF RHEUBIN M. TAYLOR AS HAMILTON COUNTY ATTORNEY.
WHEREAS, by passage of Resolution No. 123-12 this county legislative body agreed that the professional legal services of the Honorable Neil Thomas and the law firm of Thomas & Thomas as being rendered to County Attorney Rheubin M. Taylor in relation to the litigation among the County Mayor, said County Attorney, and this County Commission pertaining to the County Mayor's unilateral efforts to terminate the professional services of said County Attorney shall be paid as provided and invoiced from the general budget of the County; and
WHEREAS, the Comptroller for the State of Tennessee has opined that said above-described process for paying said legal services is in violation of Tennessee Code Annotated Section 5-9-407(b )(2) in that it fails to state an estimated dollar amount to be appropriated from the County general budget; and
WHEREAS, Attorney Neil Thomas has advised this body that presently his estimate of the cost for his services to the point where he anticipates his professional services to be needed is Sixty Thousand Dollars ($60,000.00), which this body deems as being reasonable and should be approved.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THIS COUNTY LEGISLATIVE BODY IN SESSION ASSEMBLED:
That Resolution No. 123-12 is hereby amended to provide that the Hamilton County general budget is hereby amended by allocating the sum of Sixty Thousand Dollars ($60,000.00) to be used for the payment of legal fees and expenses as incurred and charged by the law firm of Thomas & Thomas in representing the County Attorney Rheubin M. Taylor in the present litigation among the County Mayor, the County Attorney, and this County Commission pertaining to the County Mayor's unilateral efforts to terminate the professional services of said County Attorney; said allocation may be further amended upon presentation by Attorney Thomas to this body as to any additional appropriation(s) as may be needed to accomplish the completion of said services; and all other provisions of Resolution No. 123-12 stand as previously adopted.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT THIS RESOLUTION TAKE EFFECT FROM
AND AFTER ITS PASSAGE, THE PUBLIC WELFARE REQUIRING IT.