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Legal Services committee to investigate representation by multi-member firm

County commissioners will consider retaining their current legal counsel while the Legal Services Oversight Committee investigates the option of being represented by a firm with multiple attorneys.
Chair Greg Matherly broached the idea with the Legal Services members during their Jan. 14 meeting. “I’ve had several inquiries from law firms, but before we hear from them, I’d like to hear from the committee,” he said.
Washington County contracted its legal services with John Rambo, a sole practitioner in Rambo Law Firm, for 13 years before hiring him as in-house counsel in August 2012. A year later, Gov. Bill Haslam appointed Rambo chancellor of the First Judicial District.
Despite immediate interest expressed in writing by three candidates, a search process stalled over issues including salary, job description and a new structure that has the attorney reporting to the county commission rather than the mayor.
Keith Bowers was hired to serve as interim county attorney for 120 days beginning Sept. 6 while a search was conducted. Bowers operates a private practice in Elizabethton and serves as attorney for Carter County.
At the same time, Tom Seeley was appointed solely for the Zoning Office. Commissioners agreed to the hiring of Seeley with the understanding that the new county attorney would fill both roles upon being hired.
The Legal Services Oversight Committee has taken little further action toward beginning a search.
Commissioner Alpha Bridger made a motion to recommend a resolution appropriating $35,000 to retain Bowers as interim county attorney and $10,000 to retain Seeley as attorney for the Zoning Office, both for an additional 120 days. Commissioner Steve Light seconded the motion, which passed with unanimous approval.
Members of the Budget Committee approved the resolution during their meeting the next day, and it will go before the full commission on Jan. 27.
Considering a multi-member law firm could make a difference in the search process, should it begin, according to Bowers.
“It would need to be approved by the commission if we’re making this change because it could affect who applies,” he said.
Broadening the representation would be a positive move in Bowers’ opinion. “The county is too big and has too many things going on to not have a backup, and I think (the assurance of having) a fill-in would be smart long term,” he said.
A firm offering two attorneys would be the minimum according to Bowers, but the county would not be served best by too large an operation. “I don’t think you want a five-member firm where a different person shows up each time,” he noted.
Overall, he said, it would be worth the committee’s time to consider the services that could be offered. “You may hear something that blows your socks off.”
Zoning Administrator Mike Rutherford, one of the county officials appointed to the committee, agreed. “I don’t think it would hurt us imagewise to set a meeting to listen,” he said.
Rutherford made a motion to schedule a meeting to hear from the interested firms and investigate what they could provide. Commissioner Doyle Cloyd seconded the motion, which received unanimous approval.
Bowers will review the private act that established the Office of County Attorney to ensure there are no conflicts and consider a date for the committee to meet with interested firms.