Hamilton County commissioners override mayor’s vetoes on attorney issue

Rheubin Taylor, meanwhile, has sued to have his contract upheld

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / County Attorney Rheubin Taylor, left, listens as Mayor Weston Wamp speaks during the Hamilton County Commission meeting at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Wednesday, October 19, 2022.

Hamilton County commissioners on Wednesday unanimously overrode Mayor Weston Wamp's veto of five resolutions the panel approved two weeks ago in response to the mayor's attempt to fire County Attorney Rheubin Taylor.

Resolutions commissioners approved Oct. 19 reaffirmed the county's four-year contract with Taylor, which was approved in June 2021 under a different mayor and commission.

The resolutions also reassert the County Commission's control over the county attorney's physical office space and state that the panel intends to honor all ongoing contracts.

Taylor's employment status and the related fallout was the dominant topic of conversation at Wednesday's regular commission meeting and has continued to generate legal opinions from lawyers hired by both sides.

"We've reached an impasse that we don't like," Commission Chairman Chip Baker, R-Signal Mountain, said Wednesday. "We should be partners with the mayor. We have every intention to do everything we can to work together, but it's a two-way street and we haven't achieved that yet. So once we do, then we can do the business of Hamilton County. ... That's what everyone elected us for."

Meanwhile, Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton on Monday granted a temporary restraining order to prevent Wamp from terminating Taylor's health benefits -- which were set to end on Monday -- pending a decision by the court. A hearing will occur Nov. 15.

A complaint filed on behalf of Taylor in Chancery Court on Monday states the benefits are crucial to him and his family because his wife has a heart condition. Wamp has also caused the county's information technology department to confiscate Taylor's computer, which the complaint claims contained information protected by attorney-client privilege.

Taylor, represented by attorney W. Neil Thomas, is asking the court to find that his contract with Hamilton County continues to be valid. Taylor had no comment on Wednesday.

The County Commission hired its own attorney, John Konvalinka, to provide legal services related to Wamp's attempted firing of Taylor. Konvalinka addressed commissioners Wednesday and provided them with a written legal opinion in which he argued the mayor's attempt to fire Taylor is invalid.

He also claimed that the legal opinions Wamp has offered to justify his decision -- one by Knoxville attorney Dwight Tarwater and the other from the County Technical Assistance Service -- are faulty and don't contain the clarity on the issue that Wamp has claimed. Konvalinka wrote in his conclusion that if Wamp's attempt to fire the county attorney is accepted, it will likely result in costly litigation with Taylor ultimately prevailing.

Wamp told commissioners Wednesday that he is hopeful county officials can reach a resolution that is non-litigious and doesn't cost a significant amount of time or money. He added later that, while the county has countless different contracts, it has historically only had a contract with one appointed employee.

"Not a single director or administrator in this county has a contract for their employment except, by tradition, the county attorney," Wamp said. "I would argue that tradition was started to entrench the county attorney, and it has worked pretty damn well."

Wamp last month announced he was firing Taylor, alleging private work on county time, destruction of government records and violation of attorney-client privilege.

He told the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Wednesday that he and his office have had several conversations with Baker about reaching an agreement on the matter without attorneys.

"I think taxpayers, the people who elected us, have to be sorely disappointed to see one of Chattanooga's better known advocate attorneys being hired really to pit county government against itself," Wamp said. "It's not why any of us were elected, and so we're trying to avoid attorneys taking over, which frankly they would love to do.

"They would make a lot of money if that's the outcome, and we think a majority of the commission is open to that agreement based on our conversations in the last week. In other words, there's a majority of the commission that I think wants to see a resolution outside the court system."

Wamp's office has retained attorneys Barret Albritton and Everett Hixson, who argued in a legal opinion dated Oct. 28 that the commission's attempt to limit access to the county attorney's office and its contents are unenforceable under state law.

Baker said Wednesday he's hopeful that county officials will reach an agreement, but it takes "two to tango."

"In my first four years, there were zero vetoes from the county mayor," Baker said. "So far, there have been six in two months, so we've really got to work on the collegial relationship that should -- must -- occur."

Before Baker joined the body, then-Mayor Jim Coppinger in 2015 vetoed an amended budget that would have added nearly $1 million in discretionary spending to pay for special projects in commissioners' districts. The panel later overrode that veto.

In September, Wamp vetoed a resolution commissioners had approved on his behalf to add a 12th seat to the panel's dais, which would have made room for the mayor and cost about $49,000. Following the mayor's announcement, commissioners ultimately opted to rescind the resolution.

Commissioners on Wednesday also unanimously overrode the mayor's veto of two additional resolutions dealing with the implementation of a civil service system in county general government. However, noting that there is already civil service referenced in the Hamilton County employee handbook, the body went on to rescind the same resolutions.

One of the two civil service resolutions directed the county attorney and the human resources department to begin the process of adopting the new system, and the other implemented a retroactive moratorium on employee terminations until the new process could be put in place.

In an email to commissioners Monday, Wamp said several members of the panel had reached out to him to ask that he veto the two resolutions, which the County Commission had previously approved unanimously.

"In recent decades, civil service has proven to be a hindrance to hiring new employees and to day-to-day operations," the mayor wrote. "After consulting the county's administrators and hearing their grave concerns about the negative impacts civil service would have, I was relieved that multiple commissioners asked me to veto civil service."

Commissioner David Sharpe, D-Red Bank, introduced the two resolutions on Oct. 19 but told commissioners Wednesday that the change is unnecessary because civil service already exists in Hamilton County.

"Early on, there were a lot of employees who reached out to me that were scared to death because they thought they'd be terminated without cause at moment's notice," Sharpe said in an interview after the meeting. "I think that we've now discovered that that at least should not be the case because of the rules in place currently in the employee handbook. ... I think that there's a better understanding of that now broadly, which has created a bit more comfort."

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.