County Commission takes long route to final approval of attorney post

Gary B. Gray • May 29, 2012 at 9:59 PM

John Rambo received the final and official nod from the Washington County Commission Tuesday to become the county’s first full-time attorney, but the acceptance of his employ was heavily outweighed by the wrangling over who ultimately would be keeping an eye on his actions.

The months-long process cleared a major procedural hurdle when the General Assembly earlier this month approved a private act creating the position. Rambo now is a county employee who will bring with him two staff members who were employed at his private practice. His annual salary is $148,000.

This move goes hand-in-hand with the creation of a Legal Services Advisory Committee to help establish and oversee the office, and therein lies the cause for a 30-minute debate which ensued after the introduction of a the resolution to form the committee.

It did eventually pass in its original form, creating an five-member voting body comprised of commissioners, including the County Commission chairman. The other four members will be nominated by the county’s Committee on Committees. This committee will nominate only. The full commission will then elect the four members.

Additionally, three un-elected county officials will serve as non-voting, ex-officio members. The county mayor will be among these three; the other two will be appointed in the same manner as commission members and serve one-year terms.

Commissioner Joe Grandy said the committee’s make up did not allow the people who utilize Rambo’s services the most to have a vote. Commissioner Lee Chase then asked for an amended resolution that read simply that it was an eight-member committee and that all eight be voting members. That amended version fell short in a 15-9 vote.

Commissioner Joe Corso was asked to explain why the committee was needed.

“We had plenty of discussion on this,” he said. “It’s simply another standing committee. The most obvious issue is, does he (Rambo) serve two masters?” he continued, referring to County Mayor Dan Eldridge and the County Commission. “We (commissioners) are straightening out the lines of authority and making sure we have an attorney at our disposal.”

Eldridge stood and suggested yet another mix for the committee, saying it would be better to have three elected officials and three appointed officials.

And in case of a tie?

“A tie would be good, because both sides would have to go back to the table,” he said. “If you look at the invoices, you’ll see that about 80 percent of his (Rambo) time is with elected officials. We’re creating a scenario that is dysfunctional.”

A motion was made to create a committee with three commissioners, the county mayor and two county officials. That was defeated 13-11.

So it was that commissioners found themselves back where they had started, and the original formula won out in a 15-9 vote.

Commissioners also OK’d the creation of the county’s third Sessions Court. Officially, it is known as General Session Court, Part III. It also will be known as the county’s Environmental Court.

The new court will have the same terms, jurisdiction and powers as are now exercised by the county’s Sessions Courts. In addition, Part III will hear and decide cases involving alleged violations of environmental ordinances and resolutions. All three courts are authorized to interchange with each other where necessary to keep case loads at a manageable level — an issue existing Sessions Judges Robert Lincoln and Jim Nidiffer have said they could use some help with.

The new judge will share all the powers bestowed on Lincoln and Nidiffer and will earn about $148,000 annually.

Nidiffer said the new court is scheduled to start on Jan. 1. The County Commission will conduct a search and appoint a judge to serve until the next election, which is set for 2014.

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