Hamilton County leaders spent the last hour of their commission meeting Wednesday embroiled in a debate about ongoing legal expenses associated with Mayor Weston Wamp’s attempt in October to fire County Attorney Rheubin Taylor.
Officials estimated those expenses now collectively total about $72,000.
“This is just getting sort of asinine,” Commissioner Lee Helton, R-East Brainerd said. “This is a clown show. We’re not doing anything as a commission except talking about our current county attorney (and) the mayor. It’s like one of those tabloids. This is getting a little ridiculous. We need to find some resolution — I don’t care what it is — but we need to be the grownups in the room, guys. This is a waste. This is a big waste.”
Commissioners on Wednesday rehired an outside attorney, John Konvalinka, to represent the panel as a counter-defendant in a lawsuit Taylor initially filed against the mayor in Chancery Court on Oct. 31.
Taylor was responding to a Wamp action on Oct. 14 seeking to fire him from his position, which he has held for about three decades and which pays an annual salary of $180.000.
Wamp, who took office Sept. 1, cited destruction of public records, violation of attorney-client privilege and private work conducted on county time as reasons for the termination, allegations Taylor has yet to respond to publicly.
Taylor is asking the court to find that his four-year contract is valid and the mayor lacks the unilateral authority to fire the county attorney. Commissioners have stood consistently behind Taylor, unanimously passing resolutions designed to reaffirm his contract and preserve Taylor’s access to his office space and equipment.
Wamp’s attorneys filed a counterclaim to Taylor’s suit in November that questioned the commission’s authority over the hiring and firing of the county attorney. Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton has ordered that the commission join the lawsuit alongside Taylor as a defendant to the mayor’s counterclaim. Konvalinka said Wednesday the commission now has about a month to file a response. He met with commissioners in closed session after their regular meeting Wednesday.
The commission also voted 6-4 to cover ongoing legal expenses incurred by Taylor in the suit, which so far total $32,600 through the firm Thomas & Thomas, but they stopped short of approving future legal fees for the mayor’s office, which has been relying on the firm Chartwell Law. Those expenses were initially part of the resolution commissioners approved Wednesday, but the panel ultimately removed them.
Commission Chairman Chip Baker, R-Signal Mountain, and Commissioner David Sharpe, D-Red Bank — who made the motion to exclude Chartwell Law — confirmed the intent of the resolution in phone calls with the Times Free Press.
The county has already paid Chartwell Law $24,500, just short of the $25,000 threshold that would require commission approval.
Multiple members of the commission lambasted the ongoing expenses to the county and said they would like to see Wamp and Taylor reach an agreement on the matter outside of court. Commissioners Helton, Baker, Jeff Eversole, R-Ooltewah, and Gene-o Shipley, R-Soddy Daisy, voted against the payments.
Doing math from the dais on Wednesday, Baker tallied more than $70,000 worth of legal fees so far incurred by the county, which includes $10,000 the panel has already approved for Konvalinka, $24,500 spent with Chartwell Law, $32,600 for Taylor’s attorneys and $5,000 for an outside legal opinion Wamp previously requested from a Knoxville lawyer, Dwight Tarwater.
Baker said the county has spent an unreasonable amount of time and money on the issue.
“It takes a ton of our time on things that are not productive,” Baker said after the meeting, “We want to be totally productive. We haven’t shirked the business of the county — we’ve gotten that done, too — but at what public relations expense? Everyone wants to work with the mayor, but it’s not a one-way street. It’s a dialogue.”
Asked by Baker for a rough calculation, Konvalinka estimated the county’s total legal expenses could rise by an additional $200,000 if the matter goes to trial.
“It’s mind-boggling to think of the dollars, mayor, that we’re talking about here and what it could potentially get to,” Eversole said Wednesday, adding that there are other issues that demand the county’s attention. That includes ongoing facility needs in the school system.
“I’m on your side, I’m in your corner, I’ve got your back, but right now, I don’t think you’ve got ours,” Eversole told Wamp.
Commissioners have previously offered Wamp the choice of hiring his own attorney for the mayor’s office, Eversole said, which the body would be able to add to the county budget.
Wamp told commissioners his office doesn’t want this issue to be a protracted fight or to become “some bloody court battle.” Wamp’s office wants a judge to rule on the issue as quickly as possible, which should provide more legal clarity on the situation.
“The important thing that we should flesh out — and the community supports us in fleshing out — is how this process works,” Wamp told commissioners near the end of their meeting. “Not whether you can bully me by suggesting that … you would withhold legal representation from the county mayor of Hamilton County. (It’s) effectively a tactic that is intent — it feels — on forcing my hand into not terminating the county attorney.”
Wamp has declined to withdraw a letter of termination he issued to Taylor at the time of his attempted firing, which Taylor’s attorney, Neil Thomas, said Wednesday remains a central issue in the lawsuit and “constitutes whether or not there is a controversy between the parties.”
“If the notice of termination is withdrawn, I do not see a controversy between the parties,” Thomas said.
In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, Wamp said Taylor’s lawsuit has not been a distraction for his office, which he said continues to work with commissioners to serve Hamilton County. As an example, Wamp cited funding that the commission recently approved for a new Tyner Academy, a $95 million project that was initially estimated to cost $68 million.
“It is important that we clarify the ambiguity around the contract my predecessor entered into with Mr. Taylor, which only a court of law can provide,” he said. “We expect this matter to be resolved in the near future and maintain that it is in the best interest of Hamilton County to reform and modernize the county attorney’s office. And to be clear, today the County Commission voted 6-4 to use taxpayer dollars to fund a lawsuit brought against county government by a private citizen.”
Contact David Floyd at [email protected] or 423-757-6249.
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