County officials continue to discuss hiring a full-time county attorney instead of keeping a local attorney on retainer.
Talks of hiring a full-time attorney began at a Jan. 9 meeting of the Coffee County Personnel and Compensation Committee, at which time members voted to initiate the process.
The committee agreed it would potentially be beneficial to create a new position effective at the July 1 beginning of the 2020 fiscal year, when the contract with Robert Huskey, who has served as Coffee County attorney for more than 10 years, expires.
At that meeting, the committee voted to ask the Coffee County Budget and Finance Committee to examine options for funding the new position, and to task the Legislative Committee with outlining an application process.
However, a few weeks later, at the Jan. 28 legislative committee meeting, before any discussions about the application process could take place, Commissioner Bobby Bryan made a motion to refer the issue to a joint meeting of the personnel and compensation, budget and finance and legislative committees.
According to Bryan, before outlining the application process, further study of the reasons for creating the new position is required. A detailed cost-benefit analysis would be needed to determine if the new position would be valuable to the county.
“There is no one here that has come to speak to this,” Bryan said. “Now, personally myself, as a chairman – you can refer anything to us if you want to … To me personally, I don’t feel we need to sit here and discuss this item and the pros and cons of it. I feel this needs to be further researched and we need to be provided with facts and information in regard of this.”
The request had come from the personnel and compensation committee, but no one had contacted Bryan, he said.
“Nobody contacted me personally,” Bryan said. “We need to be careful – the mayor [Gary Cordell] is the chief executive of this county, and we should be respectful of his position … he needs to be aware of what is going on. I think it is because a lot of people are new.”
Bryan added there are many new count commissioners, 11 in all, and “they are trying to figure out how things operate.”
“A lot of times, the mayor may know a lot of things that are very significant, and if some smaller group goes out on their own doing something, that can be very detrimental,” Bryan said.
Commissioner Helen Debellis said she had learned she needed to ask Cordell before taking any actions.
“I know, because I have asked you enough, and I know I am not doing anything unless I call you [Cordell] first,” Debellis said.
Last Wednesday, Feb. 13, the budget and finance, personnel and compensation and legislative committees held a joint meeting to continue the discussion.
The personnel and compensation committee had asked Cordell to present facts related to Huskey’s current position and job duties, expecting to see detailed information about the time Huskey spends on county cases and other litigation matters for a period of one year. The committee had also asked for comparative information about other counties that have full-time attorneys.
While Cordell presented salary information for other counties that employ full-time attorneys, he provided detailed information about the time Huskey spends on various county matters for only one month, not the full year the committee had requested.
“I checked with CTAS [County Technical Assistance Service], and there are seven counties in the state that have a full-time attorney,” Cordell said.
Excluding the biggest counties with full-time county attorney, which would be incomparable to Coffee County, leaves three counties with full-time legal offices, said Cordell. They are Greene, Sumner and Bradley counties.
Greene County has a population of about 69,000 people. The attorney’s salary in Greene County is $151,041. Additionally, the administrative assistant is paid $35,000, and the total budget for the legal services office is $264,000, according to the 2019 budget.
“In Bradley County, with 98,963 people, the attorney is paid $82,504,” Cordell said. “They have a paraprofessional and that person is being paid $38,000, and an assistant that is paid $32,686.”
The total budget for Bradley County’s legal office is $219,240.
Sumner County has a population of about 183,000.
The salary of the full-time attorney for Sumner County is $172,545 for the current fiscal year. The amount for salaries for additional legal personnel in Sumner County is $181,096.
“[The county attorney] handles anything in the county – the county general, schools and jail,” Cordell said.
In Coffee County, the schools have their own attorney.
What does Coffee County pay?
Huskey, a private-practice attorney, is paid a retainer by the county and hired on an as-needed basis. The county pays $400 monthly retainer fee to Huskey. Additionally, he is paid $150 per hour.
Huskey represents the mayor and all department heads. He also advises commissioners on any legal issues that may come up and provides legal representation for the Coffee County Ambulance Authority.
The total allocated for county attorney in the FY2019 county budget is about $51,000. That amount includes $4,482 for legal services Huskey provided to the ambulance authority.
The county attorney also provides legal advice to other county organizations, such as the Public Building Authority (PBA), which owns and operates the Manchester-Coffee County Conference Center. According to Huskey, those organizations pay for his services out of their own budgets.
By statute, the county mayor has authority to hire an attorney to represent the county. The fee arrangement is approved by the county commission.
In addition to serving as a county attorney, Huskey is also the delinquent tax attorney for the county. In 2018, Huskey made about $64,000 for serving as a delinquent tax attorney for the county. This sum, though, has no effect on the county’s budget and is a percentage he receives out of the payments on delinquent taxes.
Huskey has been county’s delinquent tax attorney for eight years, according to Cordell. The delinquent tax attorney is chosen by the county trustee with the approval of the county mayor. It is not a conflict of interest for the same attorney to hold the positions of county attorney and delinquent tax attorney, according to CTAS.
The relationship between the delinquent tax attorney and the county is that of an attorney/client relationship. In most counties, the compensation for the delinquent tax attorney is determined in advance through negotiations between the trustee and the attorney, subject to the approval of the county legislative body. The amount of compensation cannot exceed 10 percent of all delinquent land taxes collected by the attorney but may be less than 10 percent, according to CTAS.
Can the county improve its legal situation?
The Coffee County Sheriff’s Department would benefit from a full-time county attorney, according to Sheriff Chad Partin.
There are 17 lawsuits pending against the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department currently, said Partin.
“Some of these lawsuits could be handled on the county level,” Partin said. “When you start getting into … civil rights violations, they file them in federal court and that takes it to another stage … but we have a number of suits that can be settled here, whether it is in general sessions or circuit court, they can be settled out here by a local attorney.”
The News reached out to Huskey and Circuit Court Clerk Heather Duncan to request information about the number of suits filed in the local court against the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department; however, they didn’t provide that information before press time.
In comparison, there are no lawsuits against the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department, according to Robert Baggett, Franklin County Circuit Court Clerk.
“I have searched our database and cannot find any pending lawsuits against the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department in our court,” Baggett said. “I cannot speak to any pending federal lawsuits.”
There are two cases pending against the Bedford County jail and a possible case against the county’s sheriff’s department, according to Mary West, jail administrator for Bedford County.
Partin said a full-time attorney will also be helpful when it comes to dealing with human resource issues.
“As our county grows, we are going to have more tax delinquent sales, we are going to have more lawsuits, we are going to have more human resource issues,” Partin said. “Don’t forget, my department alone is supposed to be 147 employees – there is a human-resource legality issue every day in my department.”
"Reluctant to call”
Partin said he has a lot of questions and having answers to issues could potentially avoid future litigation.
“A lot of that is thrown upon my shoulders to deal with, and I will be honest, I have been reluctant at times to call [Huskey] because of this rate per hour,” Partin said. “No question is a dumb question. I will be a fool to think I know every answer. Not only are we looking at somebody to help us mitigate suits and potential suits, but we are also looking at personnel and compensation, about our human resource department.”
The discussions are expected to continue in March.
Elena Cawley can be reached at email@example.com.