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Commission vote seals deal on third judgeship

Appointing a third Sessions Court judge is now more of an obligation than an option for the Washington County Commission, leaders learned last week.
“I thought we didn’t have to fill (the position),” Commissioner Mitch Meredith said during the July 31 meeting of the Oversight and Steering Committee.
County Attorney John Rambo said because the commission requested a private act from the state to create the position, it is responsible for appointing a third judge to fill it.
“If you decide not to, a resident could (file suit) saying you had the responsibility to fill it,” he said.
According to Rambo, the commission’s ratification of the resolution approving House Bill 3875 during the May meeting is the action that sealed the deal.
The implied consent that accompanied that vote may have been misunderstood since the third Sessions Court judge is included on the list of unappropriated funding requests, indicating commissioners would have a choice in whether to fund the position in the 2013 budget or leave it unfilled for now.
House Bill 3875 and the resolution voted on in May also include the General Assembly’s approval of a private act to create the office of county attorney, which several commissioners questioned at the time.
Commissioner David Tomita asked why two separate requests for private acts were returned in a joint resolution. Mayor Dan Eldridge said he spoke with Representative Matthew Hill who said it is common practice to combine the approval of requests.
Tomita asked Rambo why this had not occurred before, and Rambo said he had never sent more than one request at the same time.
Commissioner Joe Grandy asked if the private acts could be voted on separately, but Rambo said it must be a joint vote. The resolution passed, with Meredith and Commissioner Sam Humphreys voting against and Commissioner Pete Speropulos absent from the meeting.
During a follow-up call, Hill said the approvals were combined because it is faster to move one bill than two. “The commission had already voted on (the requests) separately and approved by two-thirds majority,” he said. “We didn’t feel it was any big deal.”
The targeted September deadline to hire a county attorney was missed because of no applicants for the position, but commissioners were originally hoping to have the new judge in place by the beginning of 2013.
“I thought we had to do something by Jan. 1,” Commissioner Mark Ferguson said during last week’s meeting, a comment that led to the second surprise of the night.
“It would be preferable,” Rambo agreed, “but you may not even be able to do anything until Jan. 1.”
Rambo said the wording of the private act indicates the commission’s powers to appoint do not become effective until Jan, 1, 2013, though he is seeking a second opinion on the interpretation because he has expressed interest in the position.
“Is it realistic to have a called meeting and expect (the appointee) to be on the bench the next day?” Meredith asked.
Rambo said there are several occasions where that has happened, and some instances in which the person taking office was sworn in at the called meeting. A transition time during which the appointee could close a practice may be possible, he added.
Five or six candidates have expressed interest in the judgeship according to Commission Chair Greg Matherly who said it would be appropriate to steer those questions to the new Legal Services Committee.
Commissioner Joe Corso said the Legal Services Committee should organize the process, but not make a recommendation for a candidate. In his opinion, the decision should be made during a commission meeting with multiple votes until only one was left.
Commissioner Lee Chase made a motion, seconded by Commissioner Gearld Sparks, to empower the Legal Services Committee to develop the commission’s process, schedule and standards for hiring the third judge. The motion passed unanimously.
However, Chase asked for a clarification from the county attorney. “If, irrespective of the process the commission may decide (to follow), will we still be able to nominate from the floor?” he asked. “There’s nothing we can do to narrow the process?”
Rambo confirmed the commission cannot mandate candidates follow an application process, which leaves the door open for a commissioner to make a nomination during a meeting, prior to a vote, of a candidate who up to that point had not indicated interest.
Despite the possible timeline change, committee members agreed to move ahead and be ready for the January appointment.
The first meeting of the Legal Services Oversight Committee is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 9, at 6 p.m. in the courthouse. Commissioners serving on the committee are Matherly, Doyle Cloyd, Mike Ford, Mark Larkey, and George “Skip” Oldham. Nonvoting ex-officio members are Eldridge, Property Assessor Scott Buckingham, and Zoning Administrator Mike Rutherford.