Washington County hires second attorney after tussle over expense, oversight

Gary B. Gray • Sep 24, 2013 at 5:17 PM

On a night when former County Attorney John Rambo was honored for his service and interim Washington County legal counsel Keith Bowers was seated for his first full County Commission meeting, the matter of another attorney managed to temporarily clog the procedural pipes.

It began when a resolution introduced to hire attorney Tom Seeley to provide services to the Zoning Administrator’s Office at the rate of $150 per hour, plus $75 per hour for paralegal service for an undefined period of time hit the wall.

“I’m just curious why there’s no limit to the time the attorney will serve, and why this attorney will not report to the Legal Services Oversight Committee?” asked County Commissioner David Tomita, who also is a Johnson City commissioner. We have an attorney (Bowers for now) who reports to all department heads and commissioners. There’s something odd about this.”

The committee earlier this month agreed to recommend to the full commission that Seeley, with Joneborough’s Wheeler & Seeley, provide services to the Zoning Administrator’s Office at the same rate of pay as Bowers, and Zoning Administrator Mike Rutherford has said that an interim attorney would not have time to properly tend to zoning law matters within a 120-day period.

Tomita made a motion to amend the resolution to hire Seeley and limit the attorney’s service to 120 days, or until a full-time county attorney was found — the same as Bowers. He also added that Seeley’s services should fall under the purview of the committee.

Commission Chairman Greg Matherly called Rutherford to the podium.

Rutherford explained that his office had a backlog of about 125 cases — primarily dealing with zoning issues.

“The zoning cases are out of control, and it’s about time we did something about it,” he said. “We can’t just tell people we’re not going to respond. Since the two attorneys have the same rates, it doesn’t matter if one works 10 hours or two of them work five hours each. It’s my recommendation, because I feel Washington County is capable of doing two things at once.”

Commissioner Joe Grandy reminded commissioners that the hiring of a third Sessions Court judge was supposed to bring with it an Environmental Court that would hear zoning cases. That has not yet happened.

County Mayor Dan Eldridge rose and told commissioners that the resolution to hire Seeley, as written, did not include a method of funding.

He was right about that. The resolution does not state exactly where the money would come from. However, it was discussed and agreed upon in committee that the Budget Committee, chaired by Eldridge, would identify a line item for that purpose.

The resolution would end up being voted on three times.

First as amended and clarified by Commissioner Mitch Meredith: Hire Seeley for up to 120 days or until a permanent county attorney is found, and have Seeley report to the committee instead of exclusively to Rutherford.

The amendment succeeded in a close 13-10 vote, with two commissioners absent.

Commissioner Pat Wolfe then asked to amend the resolution further so that it reflected the Budget Committee’s responsibility to identify a funding method for Seeley.

This vote was unanimous, as was the final vote on the revamped resolution as a whole.

Bowers is a private attorney who also represents Elizabethton and Carter County.

Commissioners also unanimously passed a resolution without discussion supporting a historical document display inside the George P. Jaynes Justice Center.

The resolution states that the purpose of the Historical Documents Display Study Committee was to implement “the display of historically significant documents related to the American and Tennessee Jurisprudence” at the center, as authorized by a state bill passed last year.

The document that has topped the list from start to finish is the Ten Commandments. Other documents include the Magna Carta; Watauga Petition of 1776; Declaration of Independence; Constitution of the State of Franklin; Preamble of the United States Constitution; The Bill of Rights and other amendments; and, the Tennessee Constitution of 1796.

“Professors at ETSU vetted us to make sure our work was accurate,” said former Sessions Court Judge John Kiener, a member of the study committee.

Commissioner Roger Nave introduced the initial resolution in June 2012 in the Public Safety Committee meeting that authorized the formation of a seven-member committee charged with implementing Public Chapter No. 686 (House Bill 2685).

The bill was championed by Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough and signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam.

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