Rheubin Taylor was sitting behind a desk on the second floor of the Hamilton County Courthouse on Tuesday, even though Mayor Weston Wamp announced Friday that he was firing Taylor from the position of county attorney, effective immediately.
County Commission Chairman Chip Baker said Tuesday that he has restricted access to the county attorney's office to employees of that department as members of the panel and Wamp's office work out the fate of that position. Baker said by phone he has also asked Taylor to continue to work until the situation is resolved.
A Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter visited the office around noon Tuesday and spotted Taylor, who told the paper he has no comment on the situation. The door to the office was locked when the reporter returned around 3:20 p.m., but someone inside the office responded to a knock and said that Taylor wasn't there.
Baker intends to bring forward a resolution during the commission's meeting Wednesday, asking the panel to hire a local attorney, John Konvalinka, who would assess whether the mayor has the ability to terminate Taylor without the County Commission. The cost would be up to $10,000.
"We'll get all of that formally cleared up," Baker said by phone. "The commission may not support me or they may support me. I'm hoping they support me."
Hamilton County attorney continuing to work
Wamp has already received two legal opinions on that question, one from the County Technical Assistance Service -- an agency based at the University of Tennessee -- and the other from a Knoxville attorney. Both indicated the mayor likely has firing authority over the position.
In June 2021, commissioners and then-Mayor Jim Coppinger approved a four-year contract with Taylor lasting through June 30, 2025. Termination, the contract states, requires a majority of the County Commission, with concurrence from the county mayor or a two-thirds majority without concurrence from the county mayor. Wamp and a new crop of county commissioners took office Sept. 1.
"Since the term of Mr. Taylor's contract extends beyond the term of the of the appointing authority, the contract between Hamilton County and Mr. Taylor is likely, at least to that extent, unenforceable under Tennessee law," Dwight Tarwater, who previously served as general counsel to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, wrote in an opinion 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."
In his conclusion, Tarwater added that only the courts could provide a definitive resolution to the question. Tarwater's legal services cost $5,000, Wamp said.
Multiple commissioners have confirmed they were not aware Wamp intended to fire Taylor until after it happened Friday.
Wamp's office said in a news release Friday that the mayor made the decision because of private legal work Taylor conducted during business hours, breach of attorney-client privilege with the mayor's office and previous admissions that Taylor's office had destroyed documents related to open records requests.
Wamp reitereated in a Tuesday afternoon phone call that Taylor is no longer an employee of the county and said the County Commission is operating well outside its authority.
"Rheubin Taylor has become entitled, it appears to me, to this position, and the traditions of this county have caused even members of the County Commission to not understand how state law says a county attorney is appointed," Wamp said. "Like I told you the other day, change is hard."
Wamp sought further legal advice from the County Technical Assistance Service and shared answers he had received on Tuesday with the paper.
The service said the County Commission chair does not have the authority to act on behalf of the commission, and although the County Commission "has the authority to assign office space within the courthouse," the commission does not have the authority to prevent or permit people from entering a specific county office.
Wamp said his office has taken action to secure the contents of Taylor's computer. Information technology staff now has it, he said.
"The citizens of the county should be concerned that he was back in the office when he's not an employee of the county, and it's clearly inappropriate," Wamp said. "It shows his disregard for state law."
It's not true that access to the attorney's office has been restricted, Wamp said.
Taylor has served as county attorney for almost three decades and also previously sat on the Hamilton County Commission.