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Mayor to begin search for county staff attorney

During their Nov. 12 meeting, members of the Legal Services Oversight Committee gave their stamp of approval to the new structure of the county’s legal office, which included authorizing Mayor Dan Eldridge to begin the search for a staff attorney.
The 2014-15 budget approved by the county commission allocates a salary of $80,000 for a full-time staff attorney and $72,000 for a senior attorney who would serve the county on a retainer basis at $150 per hour.
During the meeting, interim County Attorney Tom Seeley said the staff attorney would deal with the day-to-day responsibilities of county government, while the senior attorney would handle litigation, serious employment issues and liability concerns.
Commissioner Tom Krieger asked Seeley if he saw the staff attorney as a full-time position.
“Definitely,” said Seeley, who confirmed he is currently working 60-70 hours a month for the county, not including his hours for the Zoning Office. “I also think it would be good for the attorney to attend the committee meetings because there is a lot of work coming out of the committees.”
Commissioner Mark Larkey asked if the staff attorney would take over the zoning duties, and Seeley said it would depend on how the time is allocated. “I usually have 20-30 files trying to get in litigation, and others are in the Environmental Court,” he said.
Larkey said he thinks the zoning work could be folded into the staff attorney position. Eldridge agreed, noting most of the calls his office receives are related to zoning. “A streamlined process for complaints will help relieve the bottleneck internally,” he said.
Commissioner Rick Storey said a decision was needed in order for the interviews to begin, but Larkey didn’t see the committee members being involved. “We’re undoing the private act, and the position will report to the mayor, so I think he would hire,” he said.
The commission has approved requesting the General Assembly amend the private act of 2012 that created in-house legal counsel for Washington County and return the supervisory responsibility to the mayor, but a decision is not expected until the end of the session. However, Eldridge said the private act does not affect the creation of a staff attorney position.
“What I need is to make sure we’re all together in how we want the Legal Services Department to be set up,” he said.
Larkey said the same structure works well for the City of Johnson City, and he thinks it is the most cost-effective option for the county. “We’ve had two setups since I’ve been on the commission, but maybe we were too broad in having one attorney that covers everything,” he said.
Legal Services member Johnny Deakins made a motion to follow the structure proposed in the budget. Commissioner Mitch Meredith seconded the motion, which passed with unanimous approval.
Eldridge told committee members he would finalize the job description for the staff attorney and begin advertising within the next couple of weeks.
While four local attorneys submitted requests for consideration when former County Attorney John Rambo was named 1st District chancellor more than a year ago, Eldridge said they would have to apply again if interested in the staff attorney role.
Larkey clarified the county commission would not be required to approve Eldridge’s choice of staff attorney, but would confirm the mayor’s recommendation for senior attorney.
Eldridge said advertising and selection of the staff attorney would be the first step.
“We have Tom Seeley on retainer, which is working well, and I’m counting on his input to help vet the candidates,” he said.