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Commissioners recommend full-time attorney for themselves

Members of the Washington County Oversight and Steering Committee unanimously approved a resolution written by Commissioner Joe Corso that includes creating an Office of County Attorney solely “to report to and serve all needs and pleasures of the Washington County Board of Commissioners.”
A separate Office of County Staff Attorney may also be established, according to the resolution, to handle “additional legal services.”
The commission will determine the compensation, term of office, duties and responsibilities, qualifications, job description and operational needs of all attorneys employed by Washington County.
Commissioner Mark Ferguson made a motion during the Feb. 13 meeting to recommend the resolution to the full commission. Commissioner Gerald Sparks provided the second.
“I was taken aback when I received the mayor’s proposal last month,” Corso said, adding he later decided it had some good points. “It comes down to two simple questions: How much legal work is there in the county, and what is the most cost-efficient way to handle it?”
Last month, Mayor Dan Eldridge presented a draft resolution requesting the state adopt a private act creating the Office of County Attorney to the Oversight and Steering Committee and the full commission for review as part of his proposed administrative reorganization.
Making the county attorney a full-time employee rather than one who serves on a contract basis could offer the county a bigger bang for its buck, he said.
“The resolution for a private act told me we are making too many deals,” Corso said. “We (the county commissioners) make the rules and need our own source of legal advice.”
Corso’s resolution states the proposed county and staff attorney positions could be full- or part-time. He said he wrote his resolution in a general form that does not commit the county to salary or support staff, but does empower the county to consider having two attorneys.
Corso said the resolution requesting a private act does not commit the county to making the changes, saying the commissioners would cross one bridge at a time.
“It dramatically changes things. As the government is set up, the attorney works for the mayor. Now you’re moving it under the commission,” Eldridge said. “Are we creating issues between the legislative and executive branches of government?”
Washington County operates under a constitutional form of government, with the mayor serving as the county executive and administrative head of the county, and the commissioners making up the legislative body.
“The executive branch is the operational arm (of county government), and we rely on the attorney’s services every day,” Eldridge said. “Without talking to the officeholders about how it would affect their day-to-day operation, how can we consider this?”
Eldridge said he is one of nine elected officials, and Corso’s resolution leaves open-ended too many things that should be considered.
“You’ve changed the entire dynamic of how county government operates,” he said.
“If we have, it’s for the better,” Corso replied.
Eldridge insisted the resolution could not be considered without the input of the county officeholders.
Corso said he thinks the county should get approval for the private act first, and then the commission will make all the necessary decisions.
“The officeholders have statutory and fiduciary responsibilities, and the commission can’t take away our tools,” Eldridge said in a later interview. “We were elected for a specific role, not to change the way county government works.”
It appears County Attorney John Rambo may agree with Eldridge’s assessment of how best to utilize the position.
Rambo estimates he spends only 25 percent of his time for the county on legal services for the commission.
“There are questions about eligibility or conflicts of interest pertaining to voting, but nine-tenths is preparing resolutions,” he said. “What keeps me most busy are the day-to-day needs of the operation of the county.”
Rambo said the need for a full-time attorney is probably justified.
“When I started in 1999, the demands of the county were half of my practice,” he said. “That figure is now up to 90 percent.”