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Commissioners may no longer direct county attorney

Members of the Legal Services Oversight Committee want supervision of the county attorney to return to the mayor.
Commissioner Mitch Meredith said he made the motion to request a change in regard to reporting in the private act that created in-house legal counsel because a committee isn’t qualified to manage the day-to-day operations of an attorney or to engage additional counsel for litigation if necessary.
The motion received unanimous approval during the Oct. 7 committee meeting and will be considered by the full commission at the end of the month. If approved by a two-thirds majority vote, a request would be made to the General Assembly.
Mayor Dan Eldridge said he would not expect a decision until late in the session, which could be another six months. “I would collaborate with Legal Services to continue on an interim basis with Tom Seeley until then,” he said.
Eldridge proposed requesting a private act to create the Office of County Attorney in January 2012, pointing to the cost-effectiveness of a full-time employee rather than one who serves on a contract basis.
Because Washington County operates under a constitutional form of government, with the mayor serving as the county executive and administrative head of the county, the position would report to him.
The following month, a resolution was passed to move the attorney position under the 25-member county commission.
Upon receiving approval from the Tennessee General Assembly to create the Office of County Attorney, a second layer of commissioner supervision was instituted through the creation of the Legal Services Oversight Committee.
John Rambo was hired as in-house counsel in August 2012 after serving the county on a contract basis for 13 years. One year later, he was appointed chancellor of the First Judicial District by Gov. Bill Haslam.
Keith Bowers was retained in September 2013 to provide counsel on an interim basis while the Legal Services Committee struggled to organize a search process, set a salary and decide whether a part-time attorney could meet the county’s needs.
At the same time, commissioners decided to hire Seeley to represent solely the Zoning Department’s “many divisions and needs” on an open-ended basis. This attorney reports to Zoning Administrator Mike Rutherford.
Bowers resigned upon being elected Carter County Sessions Court judge in August, and Seeley was appointed interim attorney for Washington County during the Sept. 2 called commission meeting. His two roles are now combined.
If the supervision of the county attorney is returned to the mayor, in accordance with general law, Eldridge would then make a recommendation to the commission as to the county’s legal representation.
The private act permits a number of options, which were discussed during last week’s meeting.
“The way I read the private act is it allows four things,” Meredith said. “A full- or part-time county attorney; (an additional) full- or part-time county staff attorney; a Legal Services Oversight Committee; and special counsel.
“What we have to work at figuring out is what will be the most effective for the taxpayers and county.”
Eldridge said the main responsibilities of the county attorney are contracts, grants, human resources issues and resolutions. In most cases, litigation is referred to outside counsel. “Also keep in mind, the county attorney works for the school board,” he added.
Seeley said the formation of the office is dependent upon how the responsibilities are structured.