A committee established by commissioners last week is looking to hire the county's first internal legal counsel, and the first new county attorney since Joey Homans initially took the post 20 years ago.
According to three of the county commissioners, saving money and maintaining more control over the county's legal counsel are the main reasons they decided to look for other options, namely bringing an attorney on staff as opposed to contracting the work out.
The commission's money-saving motives were presented at its Dec. 8 work session, when District 3 Commissioner Jimmy Hamby cited a wish to save taxpayer money as the board's reason for looking into hiring legal counsel that would be held in-house and report directly to the board.
"We're just interested in ways to save money for the taxpayer, and ... getting the job done cheaper," Hamby said.
Currently Homans' rate is $150 an hour. The annual costs for the county vary depending on the amount of legal work that is required. The county paid $190,673.64 to Homan's firm for legal services in 2015 and has paid $167,530.69 so far in 2016.
As the new county attorney would be a regular salaried employee, the employee would be paid a set amount as opposed to an hourly rate. As of press time, an estimated cost for the salary and other aspects of hiring internal counsel have not been released.
There would still be times, however, when outside assistance would be needed to deal with specialized cases.
The county budget for 2017 lists approved expenditures for attorney fees, which come out of the general fund and are spread across various departments, as $232,000.
Also during the Dec. 8 meeting, District 4 Commissioner Julie Hughes Nix said that it was important to her that the new internal counsel report directly to the board as opposed to the county manager.
Homans has always reported to the board and given his biweekly updates to them.
The notion of the board of commissioners wanting more direct communication with and control of the county attorney was brought up again during the committee's meeting on Monday.
District 1 Commissioner Sharon Fausett said she wanted to see the board have a tighter grip on the county's legal counsel, and she stressed the importance of county employees coming in on a six-month probationary period.
"I want much tighter control than what we've had in the past," Fausett said.
Hamby agreed. "The reason I want to do this is to have an attorney that answers to the board."
The committee, composed of Davida Simpson, purchasing director, Vicki Neikirk, chief financial officer, Kristi Hudson, human resources specialist, and David Headley, county manager, met with county commissioners Nix, Hamby and Fausett to discuss a description, scope of work and qualifications for the job.
The scope of work, as described by the committee, entails the daily duties and responsibilities of the county attorney, who they report to and what is expected of them. A draft was read aloud at the committee meeting, and the final version was set to be presented to the commission at its Tuesday night voting session.
After establishing the scope of work, the next step from the commission will be to begin advertising for applicants to fill the position.
The committee was created after the commission's Dec. 8 work session, when Headley stated that he had discussed new legal representation with several members of the board, and was asking for the commission to advise him on how to move forward.
Outgoing Chairman Mike Berg said that the board would have to establish a committee and come up with a scope of work before searching for a new attorney, which they subsequently did.
Berg also said that he was concerned that the move would not save the county any money, as he had similar experience when he was a commissioner in Gwinnett County.
"We ended up spending twice as much as we anticipated," Berg said, referring to the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners' then-decision to hire internal legal representation. "We ended up going outside again."
Homans said he will continue to fulfill his duty as appointed county attorney until he is told otherwise.
"If they have me then I will continue to do the job," Homans said on Monday. "I have ethical and professional duties and I will continue to do the work until they tell me they've brought in a county attorney to take over. I've invested 20 years in the county and I think I've served it well. It's my home."
Homan's appointment as the county's current legal counsel runs out on Dec. 31.
Homans currently works as a civil attorney and is a partner in the Gainesville-based law firm Fox, Chandler, Homans, Hicks and McKinnon.
For updates check back at dawsonnews.com and in next week's edition of the Dawson County News.