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Legal Services Committee sets salary for attorney

Guidelines of the private act that established the Office of County Attorney will not allow Washington County to be represented by a firm.
“It’s an officer holder, and in my opinion, you can’t hire a firm,” interim County Attorney Keith Bowers told members of the Legal Services Oversight Committee during their Feb. 4 meeting.
Committee members asked Bowers to research the possibility after interest was expressed by several multi-member firms. “You could hire someone from a firm, but it needs to be an individual,” he said.
Scott Buckingham asked Bowers if he feels, based on his experience as the interim, that Washington County needs a full-time attorney.
“No, I think it should be hourly,” Bowers said. “We’re kidding ourselves if we say outside pressures don’t affect decisions.”
Bowers said the attorney must be able to provide the tough answers without being hindered by operating in a political environment. “I don’t think a full-time attorney is the best route, but you may have gone too far to go back,” he said.
Two years ago, the commission requested and approved a private act that created an office for a full-time attorney that “shall be selected by, employed by, report to, and serve all needs and pleasures of the Washington County, Tennessee, Board of County Commissioners.”
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.
Bowers was retained Sept. 6 to provide counsel on an interim basis while the Legal Services Committee struggles to organize a search process. Commissioners voted last month to retain Bowers for 120 additional days, but his plans to run for Carter County Sessions Court judge confirm he was never considering the position on a permanent basis.
“I think salary is the main thing, and you need a range because it will affect who applies,” he told committee members last week.
According to Bowers, the range is key in allowing some leeway for different amounts of experience, though he said a salary below $100,000 is not going to get the experience needed for the size of Washington County.
Other considerations are the two legal staff members who are already in place and the fact that the attorney would be hired to complete Rambo’s four-year term, which ends in October 2016.
“So we wrote the private act to fit the arrangement we had with (Rambo),” Commissioner Mitch Meredith said. “What would we have to do to go back to a contract basis — undo the private act?”
Bowers said that would be an option, but reminded committee members the private act also allows for a part-time attorney.
“We’re going to have to come to some kind of agreement because we’re just spinning our wheels in these meetings,” Commissioner Doyle Cloyd said.
A full-time attorney is the preference of Commissioner Phyllis Corso, though she said Rambo was hired at the top of the salary range at $148,500.
“We are a body that needs an attorney,” she said. “We work by committee and have legal questions at almost every meeting.”
Commissioner Steve Light made a motion to recommend hiring a full-time attorney at a starting salary range of $110,000-$140,000.
The motion was seconded by Commissioner Alpha Bridger and passed, with the only opposition from Corso who said she thought the range was too high.