Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp has informed County Attorney Rheubin Taylor that he will not reappoint him to that role, a move that surprised county commissioners and has prompted the panel's chairman to request a second legal opinion.
In a phone call with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Chairman Chip Baker said he has asked attorney John Konvalinka to weigh in on whether Wamp has the authority to make that decision without input from the County Commission.
Baker also reached out to a representative from the County Technical Assistance Service, a University of Tennessee agency that supports local governments. The agency backed up Wamp's decision, Baker said, stating that he has the ability to do that as part of a change in the mayoral administration. Wamp took office on Sept. 1.
In a news release issued late Friday afternoon by the mayor's office, Chief of Staff Claire McVay said Wamp came to the decision based on concerns about private legal work Taylor conducts during business hours, breach of attorney-client privilege with the mayor's office and "previous admissions from Mr. Taylor that his office had systematically destroyed thousands of documents related to open records requests."
The release states Wamp will immediately begin a search to identify an appointment to bring before the County Commission.
In February 2021, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that the Hamilton County Attorney's Office had destroyed records requested by the paper amid a disagreement over reasonable charges. The actions by Taylor's office eventually sparked enactment of a state law prohibiting destruction of such records in the future.
Spokesperson Mary Francis Hoots said Wamp was not free for further comment Friday afternoon and that Taylor's removal from the position was effective immediately.
"The power to appoint a county attorney rests solely with the mayor," she said in a text.
Commissioner Greg Martin, R-Hixson, had a different opinion.
"As far as I'm concerned, Rheubin Taylor is the county attorney until the mayor and the County Commission agree that he's not," Martin said by phone.
Baker said Taylor has "a ton of institutional knowledge." He said he would have preferred to see a transition plan in which Taylor overlapped with his successor and county officials were able to reach a mutually agreed upon separation date. Baker said he did not receive word from the mayor's office of the intention to fire Taylor on Friday.
"That would have been greatly appreciated," he said.
Baker received an email from Taylor early Friday afternoon, he said, and immediately called him. Taylor told Baker he had received a deadline to either resign or be fired.
Taylor spent 29 years as county attorney and 15 years before that as a county commissioner. He is also the pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Reached by phone, Taylor declined to comment.
"I respect Mr. Taylor and appreciate his service to Hamilton County, however my transition team recommended we pursue a new direction in the county attorney's office as we seek to increase transparency and accountability in county government," Wamp said in the release.
Commissioner Greg Beck, D-North Brainerd, said in a phone call that it will be difficult to replace someone with the amount of experience Taylor has overnight.
"I spent years on the County Commission, and I've always found Rheubin to be a very informed person that could keep us out of trouble and also to help direct the legal portion of what we did on a daily basis," he said. "I'm sort of dismayed."
Also reached by phone on Friday, Commissioner Warren Mackey, D-Lake Vista, said he's concerned the decision could open the county up to legal exposure that would unnecessarily waste taxpayer dollars.
"I just feel like we're going to get sued, and knowing the commission like I do, they're going to cave in and pay out," he said.
Mackey said he should've been consulted about the decision.
On June 16, 2021, commissioners approved a resolution affirming then-County Mayor Jim Coppinger's reappointment of Taylor for a term lasting from July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2025.
A legal services agreement states it can be terminated by either party for good cause upon six months prior written notice or sooner by mutual agreement.
"County termination shall require a majority of the County Commission with the concurrence of the County Mayor, or a two-thirds majority of the County Commission without the concurrence of the county mayor," the agreement states.
At 10 p.m. Friday, Wamp’s office sent the Chattanooga Times Free Press a legal opinion the mayor's office had sought from Knoxville attorney Dwight Tarwater about the enforceability of Taylor’s contract.
“Since the term of Mr. Taylor’s contract extends beyond the term of the appointing authority, the contract between Hamilton County and Mr. Taylor is likely, at least to that extent, unenforceable under Tennessee law,” Tarwater wrote in a letter to Wamp dated Sept. 30. “Additionally, notwithstanding the contract language, the county mayor likely has the authority, without the concurrence of the Board of Commissioners, to terminate the county attorney’s employment.”
Contact David Floyd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.