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Commission votes to serve as boss of full-time attorney

Upon receiving approval from the Tennessee General Assembly to create the office of county attorney, Washington County commissioners immediately instituted a new layer of supervision for the position.
A resolution to establish a Legal Services Oversight Committee passed in a 15-to-9 vote during the May meeting of the Washington County Commission.
Rules Committee members recommended creating the new standing committee to implement the provisions of the private act authorizing the office of county attorney.
According to the resolution, the Legal Services Oversight Committee will be made up of the commission chair and four additional commissioners appointed by the commission’s Committee on Committees.
The mayor and two other elected or appointed officials will serve as non-voting ex-officio members.
“So the people who use (services of the county attorney) the most can’t vote,” Commissioner Joe Grandy observed during the discussion.
Commissioner Mitch Meredith asked why such a committee is needed now after more than 200 years of county government operation.
Rules Committee Chair Joe Corso said commissioners don’t know what the county attorney is billing for or to whom the position reports.
Until last week, the county attorney reported to the mayor.
“We (commissioners) make all the final decisions in this county,” Corso said. “We’re straightening out the line of authority.”
Commissioner David Tomita did not agree with where the line was leading.
“How does this not politicize the position,” he asked, referring to the potential effects of a majority vote of commissioners that could take place at any time. “We should have an attorney who is not afraid of giving the correct answer.” Tomita said.
According to Mayor Dan Eldridge, 80 percent of the attorney’s time is spent with elected officials to run the day-to-day operations of Washington County.
“My concern is we are about to put the county attorney, whom elected officials use every day, under the commission (to be) ruled by a committee heavily weighted to the commission,” Eldridge said. “It’s dysfunctional from the beginning.”
Corso said there is no evidence that elected officials are the primary users of the attorney’s services. “I know he works for you and the zoning office, but not many others,” Corso said, adding commission members also need access to legal services.
Two proposed amendments to change the makeup of members failed before the Legal Services Oversight Committee was approved in its original form.
Commissioners opposed to the committee were Greg Matherly, George “Skip” Oldham, Meredith, Sam Phillips, Lee Chase, Tomita, Ken Lyon, Grandy and Pat Wolfe.
Matherly, in a later interview, said he would have preferred the mayor and the elected officials receive the right to vote. “I like to see active participation, but it’s important to have a vote as well,” he said. “I think everyone should be represented.”
Following the appointment of the committee, several questions must be answered before candidates can be considered for the full-time attorney’s position, according to Matherly.
The Legal Services Oversight Committee must first determine the job description and salary recommendation. Another issue is office space for the county attorney and related staff members. Matherly said the committee will find the answers and bring them back to the full commission.
Attorney John Rambo has served Washington County since 1999 and is under contract through the year 2013. The terms of that contract will remain the same until the search process is completed.
Matherly said a review of Rambo’s billing during the last year should settle the disagreement on how his time is divided. “I can attest he does a lot of work for zoning, and some of those cases can last for years due to delays and continuances,” he said.
Matherly estimates Rambo’s time is divided by thirds among the zoning office, the county commission, and the mayor and elected officials. He said the role of the county attorney has evolved into having the justification for a full-time position as the county has grown and the government has changed. “I think we will save money in the long run,” he said.
Commissioners have researched the significance of changing the reporting structure as well, according to Matherly.
“The Legal Services Oversight Committee is not part of the private act,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, we can go back and make changes.”
In time, Matherly believes the county attorney will be running his/her own office. “The committee is an advisory body,” he said. “The attorney ultimately reports to the commission.”
The attorney will also be the person most affected by the creation of the committee, according to Matherly.
“The staff will not have to go through the committee to access the attorney, the current (communication process) won’t change,” Matherly said.
The difference will be the attorney’s interaction with the Legal Services Oversight Committee when situations arise that require direction. “It’s a definite change,” Matherly agreed. “We’re in new territory, and there are still some questions on how it will work.”
The bill passed by the General Assembly also approved the county’s request for a private act to create a third judge’s position for the General Sessions Court.
Matherly said he hopes the Legal Services Oversight Committee will also head up the search for the third judge.
“I have received several resumes and letters of interest, but it’s undecided whether (candidates) will be interviewed by the (Legal Services Oversight) committee or the county commission,” he said. No interest has been expressed yet for the county attorney position.
The resolutions target September as the date to have the county attorney in place, with the third Sessions Court judge position filled by January 2013.
Matherly said the necessary consideration of big issues, such as office space, will have the commission pushing to get the attorney hired by September. No interest in the position has been expressed.
Matherly said thought filling this position would move faster because office space is available in the Justice Center and the salary is set by the court, which is self-funded.