County officials have started the process of seeking a full-time county attorney to replace current Coffee County Attorney Robert Huskey.
Huskey, a private-practice attorney, is paid a retainer by the county and hired on an as-needed basis to represent the county.
“When you have someone on retainer, that means they’re available to advise you,” Huskey said in a 2018 interview. “They also avoid getting in matters that would put them [at odds with] you. They are not only employed to be available to represent you; they, if necessary, decline other representations so they won’t get in a conflict where they can’t represent you.”
While he is a private-practice lawyer, Huskey said representing the county is the biggest portion of his job as an attorney.
The county attorney 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.
In the FY2019 county budget, about $51,000 is allocated to the county attorney. 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, according to Huskey.
Huskey has served as the county attorney since 2008.
During the Jan. 9 Coffee County Compensation and Personnel Committee meeting, Commissioner Jim Fielding expressed concerns he had about the current attorney.
Those worries were met with agreement of all committee members, except Coffee County Mayor Gary Cordell, who fully supported Huskey.
The voiced concerns about Huskey’s representation started with the recent ruling by the County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS), which contradicted Huskey’s advice. CTAS provides technical consulting to assist county government operations.
Huskey had told the county commission that it only had authority to appoint four of the directors serving on the seven-member PBA board, with the other three members appointed by the City of Manchester. However, a recent CTAS ruling stated only the county has authority to appoint PBA board members.
The issue has been a source of heated discussion because PBA owns and operates the financially-troubled conference center, which has lost about $3 million since opening its doors. The county and Manchester City equally foot the bill, but county commissioners have said Manchester officials seem to be less worried about the center’s losses than county officials are.
“Looking back to what Mr. Huskey has been involved [in], we were misinformed on the PBA, based on the recent ruling from CTAS,” Fielding said.
$1 million lawsuit
The second concern voiced by Fielding was related to a lawsuit, which ended up costing the county taxpayers nearly $1 million.
After a years-long litigation process, Coffee County agreed to settlement for the amount of $982,500 to former employee Melinda Keeling for wrongful termination.
Since the county didn’t have insurance coverage for this type of liability, most of the cost was carried by county taxpayers.
Carl Spining, hired through the insurance company, represented the county as a trial attorney in the case, with Huskey advising county commissioners.
“He [Huskey] was the one person who has been involved with the lawsuit we just paid, with losses over $900,000,” Fielding said. “And he was involved with that from the get-go.”
County officials have said the litigation could have ended sooner, and cost taxpayers less, had they not continued their appeal. Before taking the case to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, the county could have ended the process by paying Keeling $490,000.
Conflict of interest
Fielding also cited conflict of interest as a reason to replace Huskey.
“He represents the PBA, he represents the county commission, he represents some of the people on the PBA personally,” Fielding said. “And with the current issues we currently have, I really think we need to make some changes. I think we need a fresh face.”
In response to this concern, Huskey said in a phone interview Tuesday morning his job is to provide legal advice to commissioners when it comes to litigation matters. However, ultimately, he said, the commissioners always make the final decisions.
When it comes to personally representing PBA members, Huskey said he has represented PBA member David Pennington in the past, but not in any cases involving the county. He added merely providing legal advice to someone on the board doesn’t necessarily constitute a conflict of interest.
Ashley Kraft, member of the compensation and personnel committee, said at the meeting “several commissioners are frustrated about him [Huskey].”
“And I think that three strikes with him is enough,” Kraft said. “We feel we need something new. A lot of the new commissioners feel like we have been placed in a lot of situations due to his poor advice.”
Cordell supported Huskey, saying attorneys have opinions, and sometimes one attorney’s opinion would be different from another’s.
Committee members Tim Stubblefield and Coffee County Sheriff Chad Partin liked the idea of having a full-time county attorney.
“I think it’s long overdue we have a full-time attorney,” Stubblefield said.
Stubblefield suggested creating a full-time attorney position, effective July 1. This recommendation would have to be approved by budget and finance committee because funds would have to be approved for the purpose.
“[The budget and finance committee] will see if we can afford a full-time attorney, which I believe we can,” Stubblefield said. “Once that’s created, we’ll have an application process. And I know it’s a mayor’s appointment. Any attorney that wants to apply can apply. And we can go from there.”
A full-time attorney would be very beneficial, according to Partin.
“As the second-largest department next to the school system in the county government, with 147 employees, I have a lot of issues … I have attorney questions at least three times a day,” Partin said. “Mr. Huskey and I converse a lot … but he is a private-practice attorney.
“As the sheriff of this county, I’m completely in favor of an attorney, having an office at the [Coffee County Administrative Plaza],” Partin added. “It will also be very beneficial to our human resource department, if they work hand-in-hand dealing with human resource issues.”
Often when Partin has questions, he needs an immediate advice, he said.
“I think this county will save money – lots of money in years’ time – by paying and having an employee as an attorney, assigned to the mayor and the HR,” Partin said.
The key issue when it comes to county litigation, said Partin, has been the management, citing the $1 million Keeling case as an example.
“This is a case that has gone for years, and it cost my people a future pay raise, it cost Mr. [Michael] Bonner, [chief of Emergency Medical Services], a future pay raise,” Partin said. “I have 17 lawsuits in my department alone. And they are not getting answered any time soon. Because they drag on and drag on. We need someone to deal with them on a daily basis and get it over with.”
The Coffee County Compensation and Personnel Committee voted unanimously Jan. 9 to move on with the process of seeking a full-time attorney, beginning next fiscal year.
Approval by the budget and finance and legislative committees will be the next steps of the process.
The budget and finance committee will need to allocate funds for the position, and the legislative committee will be tasked with outlining the application process.
Huskey said Tuesday a full-time attorney would come at much higher price than the county currently pays and he would be happy to address any concerns the commissioners have.
Elena Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.