Opinion: Is there finally a fissure in the Taylor/Wamp/Hamilton County lawsuit dam?

Staff File Photo by Robin Rudd / Commissioners Warren Mackey, left, and Ken Smith confer during the Hamilton County Commission meeting Wednesday.

Is the dam breaking on the Hamilton County Commission after three months of stubborn stonewalling with new Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp?

It's beginning to look like it. And heaven knows it's about time.

On Wednesday, commissioners voted 7-4 not to pay $60,000 for Rheubin Taylor's legal fees in the lawsuit County Attorney Taylor filed in late October against Wamp. Earlier that month, the mayor tired to fire him from the job he held for 29 years.

In all those months until now, our 11-member commission had pretty much unanimously rallied around Taylor, though Wamp's termination effort cited Taylor's work on private cases on county time as we taxpayers continued to pay his $180,000-a-year salary, Taylor's part in the destruction of public records and what Wamp called Taylor's violation of attorney/client privilege.

The commission passed resolutions requiring Wamp to reinstate Taylor, as well as resolutions committing the commission to pay Taylor's legal fees after he sued Wamp and a Hamilton County chancellor ordered the commission be added to Wamp's countersuit against Taylor.

A shorter version of the saga has been better stated by commissioners as "the county suing itself."

Now finally we see what appears to be a welcome fracture in this wall of insanity -- one we think may have begun when a county auditor determined that even as Taylor was handling 80 private cases during county work hours in recent years, he was contracting $1.8 million in outside legal work to local attorneys because of "conflicts of interest" in the four-person county attorney's office. What's more, he was doing it without getting the required formal commission approval for those expenditures.

Taylor's defense has been that he has a contract that says he can "engage in any other nonconflicting activities on a professional basis." He defends not getting county approval on the outside legal expenditures by saying no one has questioned it in 29 years.

How, reasonable taxpayers might ask, is representing people in private probate matters in county courts during the same hours he is being paid to represent the county not a conflict? And how is handling the billing and disbursement of funds to outside lawyers to handle county cases without asking the commission in public -- not just informing them in committee meetings -- not a conflict? Especially when part of Taylor's county attorney job is to remind and advise commissioners at every meeting that they must vote to approve amounts over $25,000?

Focus, too, for a moment on the absurdity of Taylor, a full-time employee, having such a contract at all -- let alone one like this. Would you expect any county mayor to hire a public works director with a contract that says he can pave private driveways on county time?

Apparently now reasonable questions are finally occurring to our county commissioners.

The crumble became apparent this week as commissioners corrected a pair of budget amendments they passed Jan. 4 to pay future legal fees for Taylor and themselves in the lawsuit Taylor filed. Their initial resolutions contained no specific dollar amounts, despite the county finance director publicly giving them cautions that the Tennessee Comptroller's Office would not allow open-ended spending resolutions.

Still it took new eyes to see through the fog. Commission newcomer Ken Smith, R-Hixson (appointed to replace Greg Martin who resigned after being elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives), suggested rescinding the initial resolution altogether.

After the usual commission wandering, six other commissioners took advantage of the cover provided by Smith, the only one who could make the suggestion without losing face since he had not previously voted to escalate the legal expenses in the case where the county sued itself.

Joining Smith to stop the madness were Mike Chauncey, R-East Ridge; Jeff Eversole, R-Ooltewah; Lee Helton, R-East Brainerd; Warren Mackey, D-Lake Vista; Gene-o Shipley, R-Soddy-Daisy; and Chairman Chip Baker, R-Signal Mountain.

After the meeting, Baker told the Times Free Press the issue should have been resolved two months ago when Wamp indicated his office was in compliance with resolutions the commission unanimously approved forcing Taylor's reinstatement.

"We're tired of being caught in the middle of this," Baker said, "and the one thing we do have the ability to do is control payments, which we today cut off. ... We're frustrated. We want this behind us. It's time for everyone to stand up and do the right thing and move on."

But Taylor is pressing on with his lawsuit. Even though Wamp, in what he termed a "good-faith effort," last week narrowed the scope of his countersuit to focus on the validity of Taylor's four-year contract, approved by the former commission under former Mayor Jim Coppinger in June 2021. The contract's legality was questioned in a pair of legal opinions Wamp sought and received as this circus was first beginning.

Now, at least from Wamp's side, it is solely that question which will continue to play out in court. And it should. We and future county commissioners should know if a contract Wamp signs three or seven years from now could bind us for more years to come.

At least now, Taylor's legal fees will no longer be coming out of taxpayer pockets. (The commission already had refused to pay Wamp's expenses.)

The commission's attorney, however, is still on our dime, possibly to the tune of up to $200,000. And the next court date isn't until March 6.