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Commissioners debate need for full-time attorney

Despite a firsthand opinion of the job’s demands, commissioners still can’t agree on how to structure the county attorney’s position.
During the Feb. 24 meeting, Commissioner Lee Chase made a motion to approve the resolution from the Legal Services Oversight Committee that recommends hiring a full-time attorney at a salary range of $110,000-$140,000. Commissioner Steve Light seconded the motion, but the recommendations were challenged during discussion.
“Do we want to paint ourselves into a corner with a minimum $110,000?” Commissioner David Tomita asked. “We could say ‘commensurate with experience;’ I’m not sure we have to list a range.”
Interim County Attorney Keith Bowers said the search will be somewhat hampered because the candidate is being hired to complete the final two years of a four-year term begun by John Rambo, who was named chancellor last year.
“If you don’t put some kind of range out there, someone who is on a partnership track (may not apply),” Bowers said. “This job is too important to go with someone who can’t do any better.”
While the private act creating the office of county attorney allows the option of hiring an attorney on a part- or full-time basis, Bowers said the position’s “office holder” designation prevents the county from hiring a firm rather than an individual.
Commissioner Ken Lyon made a motion to return the resolution to the Legal Services Committee, which was seconded by Commissioner Sam Humphreys, but Chair Greg Matherly reminded them a motion was already on the floor.
Commissioner Joe Grandy asked Bowers if, based on his experience as the interim, he thinks Washington County needs a full-time attorney.
“With the liability insurance (carrier) to cover litigation and the current legal staff, I think it could be part-time,” Bowers said, an opinion he also shared during the earlier meeting with the Legal Services Oversight Committee. “But if you want an attorney to be at every meeting, that’s different.”
Matherly asked if his opinion would change considering the responsibilities to the Zoning Office, which are now being served by interim attorney Tom Seeley on the condition the new attorney will take them back once hired.
“My staff is underworked right now,” said Bowers, who in his interim position has been contracted at an as-needed hourly rate. “When the Environmental Court is up and running, there will be some backlog, but once caught up, it would be (manageable).”
Commissioner Mitch Meredith asked what would be required to change the private act so a firm that offered multiple services could be hired, and Bowers said a two-thirds majority vote is all that would be necessary.
Legal Services Chair Phyllis Corso, who said the county needs a full-time attorney who would be able to answer questions during committee meetings but voted against the proposed salary range, saying it was too high, noted work could always be farmed out to a specialist.
Tomita agreed the county has the option to outsource, but added, “$140,000 is a lot to pay someone to write resolutions.”
Lyon made a motion to table, which passed during a voice vote, but no date was set to continue the discussion.