The legal services agreement with County Attorney Jim Cope, which was approved in September, may violate state and local law, a citizen’s group said.
The Rutherford Neighborhood Alliance strafed the Rutherford County Board of Commissioners with questions about the legality of the contract during the public comment period Thursday night.
RNA’s Susan Allen said two parts of the agreement are problematic – the length of the contract and its apparent conflict with the Private Acts of Rutherford County.
“No motion is in order if it conflicts with local, state and federal laws, even if it is a unanimous vote …” RNA member Nora Diamond said to the commissioners. “It appears that the legal services agreement conflicts with state law.”
The contract allows Cope, Hudson, Reed & McCreary to provide legal services for the county for the next two years, but will transition the county toward creating its own in-house legal department in the two years after.
Commissioner Jim Daniel also expressed concern about the length of the contract, since the Private Acts only allows for the county attorney to serve two-year terms and the contract extends beyond two years.
County Mayor Ernest Burgess said, in his opinion, the contract doesn’t tie Cope after the initial two year term, but only defines the county’s course of action after to develop its own in-house legal department.
Allen also said the provision that allows for outside council to be hired by the county attorney and county mayor violates the Private Acts, because only the county commission has the authority to hire outside council.
“We do hold you accountable for your actions,” Allen said.
In Cope’s opinion, the Private Acts need to be amended to remove the outside council clause and he refused to sign the contract until such time.
“I didn’t feel comfortable signing this until the private act is amended,” Cope said.
But he was under the impression he would serve as county attorney under his old agreement until the Private Acts are amended.
The problem here is the Private Acts cannot be amended without approval from the state legislature, which doesn’t meet until January 2010. Which begged the question, with an unsigned contract, does the county have an attorney after Cope’s term expires Nov. 1.
“When you get the Private Acts amended I will sign the contract you approved in September,” Cope said, adding if saving money is an issue, he will retroactively reimburse the county for work done under the terms of the new contract. In the end, the commission moved to appoint Cope as county attorney under the terms of his previous contract as of Nov. 1.
Burgess also addressed allegations the study committee that researched the legal services agreement broke Tennessee’s Sunshine Law by not publicizing and holding open meetings.
Commissioner Anthony Johnson said the issue should be reviewed by the Steering Committee or the Ethics Committee to clear the air.
“Our only objective was to put things right that haven’t been for at least 26 years,” Burgess said.
He explained the Sunshine Law only applies to governing bodies with authority to make a decision and the study committee had no authority to make a decision.
“I think it is abundantly clear there was no violation of the Sunshine Law,” he said.
The Sunshine Law says governing bodies that have the authority to make a decision or recommendation to an authoritative body must operate in the public light.
The study committee drafted the legal services agreement and presented it as a recommendation to the Steering Committee.
The County accepted a grant from the U. S. Department of Energy for an ARRA Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant for $418,600.
The commission passed the resolution in a 19-0-1 with Allen McAdoo abstaining.
Rutherford County’s Board of Commissioners will vote to accept the grant at its regular monthly meeting Thursday night. The funds will be used to purchase additional recycling equipment providing more recycling options at all county convenience centers, upgrade and replace fluorescent lamps in four county office buildings, upgrading central heat and air controls in four buildings, and replacing metal halide bulbs in five parking lots.
At the county’s budget committee meeting, Nolen said the total solid waste project was $154,572 with $110,000 being provided from the ARRA Energy Efficiency Grant and $44,572 would be provided from current funds in the Solid Waste budget through the Recycle Rebate Grant.
The other projects will cost the county approximately $308,600.
The County Commission also accepted a $538,165 grant from the 2009 JAG Recovery Grant to purchase law enforcement equipment. The grant is a multi-jurisdictional between Murfreesboro, La Vergne, Smyrna, and Rutherford County. The city of Murfreesboro will administer the grant.
Michelle Willard can be contacted at 615-869-0816 or firstname.lastname@example.org.