Members of the Dawson County Board of Commissioners are currently weighing their options for legal representation in the absence of an in-house attorney.
After former County Attorney Lynn Frey’s resignation in December, the board contracted with Cumming firm Jarrard & Davis, which also represents the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, to serve as interim representation for a period of 60 days.
Commissioners discussed extending the contract with the Cumming firm as well as the benefits of contracting with a firm as opposed to hiring another in-house attorney during Thursday afternoon’s work session.
Purchasing Director Melissa Hawk asked the board to allocate a budget in order to pay Jarrard & Davis for work performed over the 60 day period, because County Manager David Headley only has approval to spend up to $25,000 in expenses that were not previously budgeted.
“We’re nowhere near this $25,000 now, but there’s multiple attorneys working on multiple things and it could come in pretty quickly at one time, and I just want to get us ready for that,” she said.
The money to pay the firm will come from funds previously budgeted for Frey’s salary and will need to be reallocated.
District 2 Commissioner Chris Gaines said he also wanted to look into extending the time frame that the county will retain the firm so that the attorneys have time to tie up loose ends before a final decision is made on representation, as well as to look into if retaining the firm for longer will result in a cost savings.
Hawk said she would speak with the firm if they would be willing to negotiate the price for an extended contract.
“There is no real way at this moment, unless we sit down and try to figure out what is still open, and what you feel the time would be, to determine what that budget should be and what the approval limit should be,” Hawk said.
Angela Davis of Jarrard & Davis said because there had been some issues that were left unattended, it would take a few months for the county’s legal matters to be stabilized.
“It appears to us that a lot of things had been sitting idle for a while so we’ve really tried to prioritize,” she said. “I would hope that we will make great strides in the next few months...I think end of first quarter we should be in a pretty good place, where there may be some ongoing issues but they will be stabilized. I’m hopeful.”
If the board votes to extend the contract, they will have a little more time to decide if they want to hire another in-house attorney or contract with a firm, according to Commission Chairman Billy Thurmond.
The commission will have to put out a bid so that other law firms have a chance to offer their services, and Thurmond said the commissioners will have to decide what qualifications they want the firm to be able to provide.
For example, the board could decide to implement an expense cap for everyday business so that the firm could not charge more than the budgeted amount, except for in the case of litigation, which can go on for extended periods of time.
“My support will be for a firm going forward because of the different expertise we can get from a firm and the fact that we will always have a backup plan; if the person you see normally is unable to come or they’re sick, they’ll send someone else,” Thurmond said.
“I think that we find efficiencies in a firm that brings a depth of knowledge in various areas that we have to go through, whether it be zoning, HR, litigation or whatever it may be that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel with every issue,” he said. “I’d want it to be a firm that represents other communities and has already been there, done that type of thing.”
Gaines said when the board decided to bring the attorney position in house, one of the issues brought up by District 4 Commissioner Julie Hughes Nix and District 1 Commissioner Sharon Fausett was availability of the attorneys.
“I think Julie and Sharon were adamant about making sure there was immediate responses and things like that, that would probably be part of what we would want to see is the ability to react in a certain time frame,” he said.
Nix said the department heads seemed very happy with the way issues were being handled by the current firm.
Frey was appointed county attorney in February 2017, and left in December for health reasons.
Prior to Frey, the board contracted with local attorney Joey Homans for legal services for 20 years. The board voted in December 2016 to look into bringing the attorney position in-house, on the premise the move would save the county money.