Local News

Story published: 09-10-2013 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Committee recommends Bowers as interim attorney

By Karen Sells
Assistant Editor

Waiting for the Washington County Legal Services Oversight Committee to find a new county attorney could get expensive.

“I think the first thing on each of our minds is recognizing (former county attorney) John Rambo has taken the job as chancellor,” Commission Chair Greg Matherly said during the Sept. 3 meeting. “It definitely left us with a void in the county, and the office holders have communicated with me about that void.”

Matherly was unanimously elected chair of the Legal Services Oversight Committee for 2013-14, and Commissioner Doyle Cloyd will serve as vice chair. Other commissioners making up the committee are Steve Light, Phyllis Corso and Alpha Bridger.

Also in attendance were Zoning Administrator Mike Rutherford, Property Assessor Scott Buckingham and Mayor Dan Eldridge, who were appointed last year to represent the county officials as directed by the resolution that created the new standing committee.

A called meeting of the Committee on Committees to appoint county officials to Legal Services Oversight for the current year is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 12, at 9 a.m.

Matherly provided the first option after opening the floor for discussion on an interim attorney during the search for Rambo’s replacement.

“Keith Bowers has offered to take the position for a limited time,” he said. “I don’t think he is interested (in the full-time job), and he would be limited in his scope.”

Bowers operates a private practice in Elizabethton and serves as attorney for Carter County.

Rutherford made a motion, seconded by Cloyd to recess the meeting and reconvene in a week to discuss a job description for an interim attorney who would be hired for 120 days.

Matherly said action on an interim attorney is on the agenda for the called county commission meeting scheduled for Sept. 10, and Rutherford amended his motion so the group would instead meet again on Sept. 6.

Eldridge asked why it is necessary to draft a scope of work duties.

“All of the office holders have different needs,” he said. “Why not retain (an interim) on an hourly basis?”

Eldridge said he is already working with another attorney on an hourly basis.

“We have legal needs today, and the sooner we can address this issue the better, for the office holders,” he said, adding that work didn’t stop when Rambo resigned.

According to Eldridge, the Legal Services Oversight Committee has been slow to respond to the vacancy, which is what put him in the position of having to go to another attorney for an issue that could not wait.

Rambo’s last day in the office was Aug. 9.

“Can you tell us what cost you are paying per hour and who is helping you?” Rutherford asked.

According to Eldridge, attorney Jim Wheeler is providing his services to the county in the range of $150 per hour.

Rutherford claimed a vote was in order to allow the mayor to continue using Wheeler for county legal business, but Eldridge said he doesn’t need the committee’s permission.

“If you don’t want our blessing, fine,” Rutherford responded.

Rutherford then distributed a letter from attorney Thomas Seeley with proposed costs for providing legal services for the Washington County Zoning Office.

He reminded committee members of the plan for the General Sessions judges to begin issuing citations for the Zoning Office once the Environmental Court was established, which was something Rambo had been working on but did not complete prior to leaving his post as full-time county attorney.

“Zoning and litter are not short-term cases, and I don’t see how the interim attorney would have time (to handle them) in 120 days,” Rutherford said. “Judge Stanley has released Rambo from the three cases in process, and we expect to have seven to eight (additional) cases very soon.”

According to the letter, Seeley will provide his services to the Zoning Office at an hourly rate of $150, plus $75 per hour for paralegal services. In addition to attorney fees will be “all court costs, subpoena costs, photographs, depositions, court reporter costs, reports, witness statements, and other out-of-pocket expenses directly incurred in investigating or litigating Zoning office’s legal matters.”

Rutherford made a motion to allow the Zoning Office to engage Seeley for an undesignated period of time at the stated terms for assistance in zoning violations and development of the Environmental Court.

“We’re with nothing now, and the calls won’t stop,” he said.

Rutherford’s motion was quickly seconded and passed unanimously.

Rutherford then made a motion to direct Eldridge to work with the Budget Committee to determine the correct line item to be used to pay Seeley. It also passed unanimously.

When the Legal Services Oversight Committee reconvened Sept. 6, Rutherford presented a resolution to appoint Seeley “to represent solely the County’s Zoning Department’s many divisions and needs” on an open-ended basis.

“I have served as the legal representative for zoning since I was hired in 1999, which is why Section 3 says Seeley will report to me,” Rutherford said.

Section 3 of the resolution reads: “Mr. Seeley shall serve at the direction, discretion and be overseen by the County Zoning Administrator or in his absence, the Legal Services Oversight Committee.”

Corso made a motion to approve the resolution “in light that Mr. Rutherford runs a tight ship.” Bridger seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.

Committee members also considered a resolution to appoint Bowers as interim attorney for 120 days at a rate of $150 per hour plus paralegal services at $75 an hour.

“John Rambo had informed me this might be needed, and serving as a bridge (during the search) is something I’d be pleased to do,” said Bowers, who attended the meeting.

Bowers said he would be available to assist county office holders and supervise legal services staff. He plans to be in the legal services office one day a week if hired.

Rutherford made a motion to approve the resolution appointing Bowers as interim attorney. The motion passed unanimously.