Mayor Wamp aims to stop use of Hamilton County resources on private business

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / County Attorney Rheubin Taylor, left, listens Oct. 19 as Mayor Weston Wamp speaks during the Hamilton County Commission meeting at the Hamilton County Courthouse.

A resolution introduced by Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp would require the county attorney and other high-level employees to follow rules that would prevent them from using county resources for unofficial business and prohibit outside work that interferes with their day-to-day responsibilities.

Currently, administrators, the county attorney, assistant county attorney, department directors, the election administrator and other personnel are exempt from those provisions in the Hamilton County Employee Handbook.

The mayor's resolution would require those positions to follow the handbook's rules about secondary employment.

"Regular employees may not engage in any outside employment that adversely affects their work performance ... or creates a conflict of interest," the handbook states.

The change would also prohibit those employees from using county email, internet, cellphones and other public resources for unofficial business.

"I can't think of a good reason why we would exempt them from policies that apply to the vast majority of county employees," Wamp said during the commission's agenda review meeting Wednesday.

The change will appear on the panel's agenda for its regular meeting next week.

The proposed change comes three days after the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that County Attorney Rheubin Taylor has been using his county email address and phone number as he has worked on at least 80 cases in private practice in the past five years -- while employed full time as the county attorney for $180,000 a year.

"We want county employees to not feel like their leadership has some different set of HR rules than they do," Wamp told the Times Free Press, "and (it's) clearly a coordinated effort so that the attorney's office gets to operate with a different kind of privilege than any other office in county government. It's inappropriate."

Last month, Wamp attempted to fire Taylor, citing as one of his justifications private work Taylor conducted on county time -- although he did not provide details of that outside work. The Times Free Press learned of those details by requesting records from the courts.

County commissioners have said they were surprised by the mayor's announcement, and they passed a series of resolutions reaffirming Taylor's four-year contract and reasserting their control over the attorney's office and his equipment. They later unanimously overrode Wamp's veto of those resolutions.

Officials have noted Taylor's contract allows him to conduct private work. It includes a provision that states that, although his position is full time, he can "engage in any other non-conflicting activities on a professional basis."

The court records obtained by the Times Free Press last week indicate Taylor's outside work included handling the estate of former Mayor Jim Coppinger's mother.

Taylor had no comment Wednesday. He continues to work as county attorney with support from the County Commission, but he has lost access to his county computer, phone and email.

Taylor has filed a complaint in Chancery Court asking a judge to declare that Wamp does not have the unilateral authority to fire the county attorney and require the mayor to return "documents covered by attorney-client privilege." Taylor has been granted a temporary restraining order that restores his county health benefits.

Some commissioners Wednesday raised concerns about Taylor's working conditions, noting they approved a resolution last month that should have restored the attorney's access to his county computer, and doing so would be a sign of good faith on the part of the mayor's office.

Wamp's attorney, Barret Albritton, told commissioners Wednesday that there are "very productive" discussions going on that could lead to a resolution to the situation. The mayor's office does not believe the commission has the authority to make that decision about Taylor's equipment, he said.

Wamp's office has authorized up to $25,000 to retain Albritton, which is the limit his office can spend without approval from the commission, and has also received a legal opinion from another attorney, Dwight Tarwater, that cost $5,000. The commission, meanwhile, has retained attorney John Konvalinka for up to $10,000.

"Let's practice a little more patience because I think, as Mr. Albritton said, there's an opportunity for all of us to work on a resolution together," Chairman Chip Baker, R-Signal Mountain, told commissioners Wednesday, "and I think we'll know shortly as to whether that will take care of this dilemma we're in."

Pointing to the potential cost, Commissioner Warren Mackey, D-Lake Vista, also grilled Wamp about his effort to extend the period over which the county retains email communications, which the mayor announced last month. Mackey said county employees see this as "another attempt to intimidate them" and "hold something over their head."

Currently, Wamp said, the county keeps emails for 10 days. Wamp has asked the county's public records commission to change the rule. The current policies were set in 2004, and at the time, County Finance Administrator Lee Brouner said, it was extremely expensive to store old emails. The County Technical Assistance Service recommends local governments keep emails for five years.

Right now, Brouner said, the county treats them as "working papers," allowing the county to dispose of them after a limited period of time.

Wamp said the cost of storage is much less prohibitive now than it was 18 years ago. Brouner said the county is investigating the cost of extending the retention period to five years, and officials have received one estimate that totals $7,500 a month, which would equate to $90,000 a year.

"I'm not willing to pay that myself," Mackey noted. "That's taxpayer money being spent unnecessarily plus the fact ... I see a trend towards people trying to intimidate county workers. I don't like it."

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