After meeting in closed session with an outside attorney Wednesday to review whether Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp can unilaterally fire the county attorney, the Hamilton County Commission unanimously approved resolutions Wednesday that reaffirmed Rheubin Taylor's employment contract and protected his files.
Taylor's four-year contract was approved by the prior commission June 16, 2021, and the resolution passed Wednesday states it will continue in full force with no lapse. Commissioners also approved a resolution stating that no county officials can have access to the attorney's office or any computers, files, documents, notes, reports or associated materials without the written permission of the county attorney, his designee or the commission.
Additionally, Commissioner David Sharpe, D-Red Bank, said county government employees feel their workplace has grown hostile, and he brought forward two resolutions that will "ensure county business can continue uninterrupted and professionally" if a similar attempt to fire a staff member happens again.
Commissioner Joe Graham, R-Lookout Valley, said he's been informed of similar concerns.
"I've heard from many departments and many employees," Graham said. "They're, for a lack of a better word, shaking in their boots concerned, and I am as well. In this work environment ... in the United States, you can't just go out and replace people on a whim, because these people that work for Hamilton County are extremely talented at what they do, and people don't just apply like they used to."
The resolutions would establish a civil service system for employees of Hamilton County general government. That would apply to employees in director positions, including the role of assistant county attorney and below. Sharpe said his understanding is administrators, the county attorney and employees in the mayor's office would be exempt from that process.
Commissioners also placed a moratorium on employee terminations in general government until the civil service system has been established, making that retroactive for the past 30 days.
The county will pay attorney John Konvalinka up to $10,000 for his services, and commission members unanimously approved his hiring during their regular meeting Wednesday morning before stepping behind closed doors.
Taylor has continued to work since the mayor's announcement Friday -- when Wamp said Taylor's removal would be effective immediately.
Taylor sat with staff during the regular meeting Wednesday and provided legal advice to commissioners. Commissioners continued to refer to Taylor as their attorney, and community members also spoke on his behalf.
Commissioners expressed sharp criticism of Wamp's decision to fire Taylor, noting they weren't consulted and that it demonstrated a lack of transparency on the part of the mayor's office.
Commissioner Jeff Eversole, R-Ooltewah, said one of the first things he learned when he started his tenure on Sept. 1 was that the county attorney represents both the mayor and the commission in a 50-50 split.
"When I'm not in town and I see a news release, and then all of a sudden I get an email about what has transpired, that is not transparency," Eversole said, "and I think we in government owe it to the constituents of Hamilton County to be transparent about what we're doing."
Commissioner Greg Martin, R-Hixson, said Wednesday the panel chose Taylor for the position.
"It's completely inappropriate for someone to come and fire our employee," Martin said. "We need to get legal counsel. This is going to court. Let the courts decide."
Wamp's office sought two legal opinions, one from the County Technical Assistance Service and the other from a private attorney in Knoxville, Dwight Tarwater, that indicate the mayor likely has the authority to fire the attorney without concurrence from the commission. However, Tarwater noted only the courts could provide a definitive answer on this question.
"Frankly, I could only conclude after reading these two legal opinions that neither of these two attorneys could actually say with any confidence what the law actually was on those two issues," Commission Chairman Chip Baker said. "It appeared to me that what those two attorneys were actually trying to convey to Mayor Wamp was a guess at what the law may be on those two issues because the law was unclear."
The mayor's lack of transparency with the commission, Baker said, is particularly troubling. Citing a private act, Baker said the commission is in charge of all county facilities, and having known that Taylor had a case in court Monday morning concerning an issue in his district, Baker said he contacted Sheriff Austin Garrett and asked him to prevent anyone from interfering with the attorney by entering his office.
"The overriding thing in all of this is, we would dearly love to be working lockstep with the county mayor," Baker said in a phone call after the meeting. "We always have. Right now, we've got a few blips on the radar. We need to get through it."
In June 2021, the County Commission and then-Mayor Jim Coppinger approved a four-year contract with Taylor lasting through June 30, 2025. The opinions from Tarwater and the County Technical Assistance Service stated the contract is likely invalid because there has since been a change in government. Wamp and a new crop of county commissioners took office Sept. 1.
"In some ways, I have the difficult, unenviable task but also the real privilege of over the last eight weeks conducting business as the first county mayor to have come in in an open election since 1994," Wamp told commissioners Wednesday. "County government in the fourth largest county in Tennessee has undergone very, very little change in my lifetime."
Wamp said attorneys at the County Technical Assistance Service are "somewhat bewildered" by the situation.
"We all have equally inherited a tradition that is out of line with state law, and I feel like one of our biggest responsibilities is in the name of transparency to bring the operations of county government back into state law," he said.
One of those unusual traditions has involved appointing a county attorney beyond the term of the official making the appointment, he said.
"I don't think anybody here, and certainly no citizens of this county, would find it appropriate if any of us tried to begin appointing people, be it the head of the legal department or the head of public works, to a lifetime appointment," Wamp said. "If you appoint beyond your term in office as an appointing authority, you are opening Pandora's box."
Wamp apologized for the disruptive start to this process, adding that his office felt it was important to have the utmost confidence in the county attorney. That's why Wamp and his staff made the decision to fire Taylor, he said.
Martin responded that the commission never sought to appoint Taylor for life, calling that a red-herring argument.
"I really take objection to the thought that (2022) was the first open election," Martin added. "My vote mattered in 2018. My vote mattered in 2014. And so did every other citizen in this county. I don't buy that argument that something magical happened in this last election."
During a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Wamp said the events that transpired at the County Commission meeting that morning were dizzying.
"We're pretty confident that much of the action they took is not within what state law allows," he said. "They can pass a resolution. That doesn't mean that state law permits whatever action they're taking, and it seems to me that they've veered well outside of what their statutory authority is."
Responding to concerns raised by commissioners, Wamp said he met with his administrators earlier Wednesday. He said they told him that they hadn't heard any reservations from employees about their working environment.
"I don't know why there would be," he said. "This incident is isolated to one individual."
Wamp has noted that Taylor was the only department head recommended for removal in his transition process. He cited allegations of private work on county time, violation of attorney-client privilege and destruction of government records as reasons for the termination.
Although the commission reaffirmed its control over county facilities on Wednesday, Wamp said his office received all the files it needed following Taylor's firing and hasn't sought anything outside what human resources would encourage in the event of a termination. Taylor doesn't have access to email or a county phone, is locked out of his computer and isn't on payroll, Wamp said. His annual salary as of last Friday was $180,400.
Taylor had limited comment Wednesday, but he told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that he's continuing to work the "old-fashioned way" without access to his files or computer.