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County advertises for new staff attorney
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Commissioners voted last week to officially begin the search for an applicant to fill an internal legal services position that, if accepted, would be the first on-staff attorney the county has ever seen.

A job opening for the position is now posted on the Dawson County Government website, listing the scope of performance and job requirements, which were set by a committee after their initial meeting on Dec. 12.

According to the job posting, applicants "must possess a Juris Doctorate with at least seven years' work experience in a law-related field pertaining to county government, be a member in good standing with the Georgia Bar and admitted to practice law in the Superior Courts of Georgia," among other qualifications.

A salary has not been set by the board and will depend on qualifications. Under the contract attorney system, the annual costs for the county vary depending on the amount of legal work that is required.

Currently, Homans' rate is $150 an hour. 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.

The county will be accepting applications for the position until 5 p.m. on Jan. 4, 2017.

Commissioners have acknowledged that the timeline for hiring someone new is unclear, and due to the impending holidays and end of the year, they aren't sure when they'll have a precise plan of action.

"We're not sure exactly how the timeline will work out with the holidays, because they always delay things and exacerbate problems," said District 1 Commissioner Sharon Fausett on Dec. 15. "So with all of the time constraints, it might be February before we get anything nailed down."

If the commission does decide they would like to hire an applicant, there are rules they must follow.

Once the names are narrowed down to the final applicant, their name and records must be available to the public for two weeks prior to the board officially hiring them. If the board votes to narrow their list of options down to three or less, they must release all of the names.

Commissioners said they are trying not to get ahead of themselves and are simply examining other options.

"We don't know what way it will go, we may not get one applicant for the position," said Julie Hughes Nix, district 4 commissioner. "We're just checking out our alternatives and at the end of the day we'll be able to say that we looked into it and tried to make the best decision for our taxpayers."

When asked what the impetus was to start examining other options, none of the commissioners wished to explicitly comment, other than to repeat the reasons they initially brought up during their Dec. 8 work session.

"We're just looking for whatever way we can to save taxpayers money," said Nix.

"I will say we don't take this lightly," Fausett said. "But I'd rather not comment on that."

While the commissioners have no concrete plans, the county's other elected officials are already brainstorming on what a staff attorney could mean for them in the event that the current county attorney, Joey Homans, is no longer involved with the county.

Sheriff-elect Jeff Johnson said that he would be open to working with a new staff attorney if one were to be hired.

"We'll try anything that saves the county money," Johnson said. "We're a separate entity so to speak, but there is no need to duplicate services if we can use the same attorney. But whenever there are civil rights violation cases it is critical to have someone who knows their business, and when you start talking about constitutional attorneys you start talking about some money unfortunately."

Johnson said that best outcome would be that the county hires an experienced attorney,
someone that would steer the department in the right direction.

"[Homans] is a good attorney, and he's served us well," Johnson said. "He's been a great resource, very timely and responsive."

Outgoing Sheriff Billy Carlisle said that having an experienced attorney is very important for the sheriff's office in particular due to the nature of the business.

"It's not ‘if' but ‘when' in law enforcement," he said. "We live in a lawsuit-happy society, so we have to make sure we're doing everything right. And even if we are doing everything right, we're occasionally going to get a lawsuit. [Homans] has been there to help me with those, and I've had my share over the years. He's a top notch attorney and he knows his business."

Carlisle said he is afraid that if the county hires a staff attorney, the experience they would need to have could cost more than the county is willing to pay.

"I've seen other organizations have staff attorneys, and they don't last long because you can't pay them what they can make elsewhere," Carlisle said. "It all boils down to money. If you've got someone with the experience that [Homans] has, you won't be able to keep that person long because they are going to go out on their own, open their own firm or work for another law firm."

Carlisle said he has a grim outlook for the county if they chose to hire an in-house attorney, because he doesn't think it will work out.

"I have no idea what [Homans] is making a year, or what the county has to pay his law firm, but it's worth every dollar," Carlisle said.

As for the up-and-coming elected officials, both incoming District 2 Commissioner Chris Gaines and incoming chairman Billy Thurmond declined to speak in too much detail.

Gaines said that he hasn't been informed of the board's plans, but thinks that researching the best options for the county should continue to be their priority.

"I've not been included in their conversations, but I hope when I get on the board that we will do the best thing for the county," Gaines said.

Thurmond too said only that he looks forward to working with the board and doing what is right for the county.

Dawson County is foraging into uncharted territory with their quest for internal legal counsel, and not just because a new hire would be the first staff attorney in the county's history.

If the commission hires internal legal counsel, the county will become the smallest in the state to have an in-house attorney, with an estimated 2015 population of 23,312, according to the most recent data provided by the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia.

The next smallest county to have an in-house attorney is Sumter County, a south Georgia county with an estimated population of 30,779.

As of 2013, only 14 out of 159 counties in Georgia had internal legal representation, and three have some combination of both.

The other counties with in-house attorneys are Gwinnett, Cobb, Dekalb, Fulton, Fayette, Henry, Clarke, Gordon, Walker, Muscogee, Richmond, Bulloch and Glynn. Union, Clayton and Chatham counties have a combination of in-house and contract attorneys.

All but six of these counties have a population of 100,000 or above.

Outgoing Commission Chair Mike Berg said that he thinks the move towards in-house legal services is a bad move for the commission based on the size of the county and the amount of money an experienced attorney would expect.

"Until you reach a population of 75,000 to 100,000 people, or until you reach a budget of about $300,000 to $400,000 a year for legal services, you are going to pay more for duplication of services than anything else with an on-staff attorney," Berg said.

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.

Berg said that if the issue is a personality one, the commissioners could simply chose not to give Homans another contract.

"I think it will cost them more to look outside," Berg said. "When I was in Gwinnett we did that, and it cost us almost double the first two years. They had 300,000 people at that time. Now their population is almost a million and they have seven in-house attorneys. I think it's a mistake, but they'll have to see that for themselves."

The full job description and requirements for the county attorney position can be found at www.dawsoncounty.org/departments/dawson-county-human-resources/job-openings/dawson-county-board-of-commissioners-county-attorney.

The next Dawson County Board of Commissioners meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m. Jan. 12 in the Dawson County Government Center, 25 Justice Way, Dawsonville.

 

 

 

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