After three hours of discussion, the Steering Committee adjourned its special meeting Wednesday with a close vote to extend a general legal services agreement with County Attorney Jim Cope and his firm.
The recommendation will include Commissioner Charlie Baum’s (Dist. 14) resolution to contract with Cope for a flat fee rate of $259,000. Baum’s resolution was retrieved verbatim from the 2009-2010 budget year, in which his office was hired for a flat rate.
Cope is currently paid a retainer and hourly rate, which causes fluctuation in costs. However, this year’s budget documents reflect an estimated $353,000 for services rendered by the county attorney excluding $37,450 for other contracted services. Cope is currently under contract with Rutherford County for litigation, which is included in the “other contracted services” budget line item.
“The resolution is designed to go back to that pay structure and bottom line cost,” said Baum, who also serves as chair for the Department of Economics at Middle Tennessee State University.
Baum also explained his resolution does not solely reflect salary but also supplies, communications, and secretaries.
Discussion regarding whether to contract with Cope again began earlier this month when Mayor Ernest Burgess prepared a budget for an in-house legal department expected to cost more than $383,000.
Burgess reminded commissioners the County Commission voted two years ago to extend Cope’s contract as a transitional period to hiring in-house legal council. Burgess presented the commission’s decision just six weeks before Cope’s contract was set to expire, which left many commissioners weary of whether a legal department could be set up in time.
Failure to communicate plans for an in-house attorney also surprised Cope.
“We’ve heard nothing from the Mayor’s office about any issues concerning our representation or continuing,” Cope said. “The bottom line is there has not been any communication. My surprise is not whether you want to go with a full-time county attorney, again, that’s your choice. My surprise was that I didn’t get invited to review the budget.”
Cope expressed the same sentiment during the May 17 County Commission meeting when Burgess was challenged by Commissioner Robert Stevens (Dist. 12) for excluding him from the budget process.
Burgess issued an apology to Cope during Wednesday’s meeting saying, “I was probably naive and didn’t think a budget meeting with Mr. Cope was needed. I will acknowledge I should have shared my thoughts with Mr. Cope, and for this, I apologize.”
Burgess also said that after reviewing the minutes of meetings that dealt with the issue from 2007-2010, he believes the initial two-year agreement was intended to be a transition to an in-house attorney, which is why he prepared such a budget.
Commissioners agreed the issue should have been presented sooner in order to make a transition.
“This didn’t happen overnight,” Commissioner Steve Sandlin (Dist. 9) said. “The mayor didn’t act on his own. He acted through the full commission.”
Commissioner Will Jordan (Dist. 3) said he never voted for an in-house attorney in the first place.
“There are seven commissioners who weren’t here for this,” Commissioner Matthew Young (Dist.16) said. “You can’t bind us to something we weren’t here for.”
Commissioner Jeff Phillips (Dist. 17) argued the county needs an in-house legal department considering its size.
“We have screwed up,” he said.
Commissioner Gary Farley (Dist. 7) made an amendment to the original motion of moving forward with an in-house legal department to extend Cope’s contract for one year while the county transitions.
Cope said he could not agree to that without speaking with his firm.
The amendment failed.
An amendment extending services with Cope for two years at a flat rate of $259,000 while the county prepares to move forward with in-house legal counsel passed the Steering Committee by a 4-3 vote.
The issue will go before the County Commission on Thursday, June 14, for final approval.