Opinion: Hamilton County Commission’s once-unanimous support for county attorney showing cracks

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

The cracks in the Hamilton County Commission that Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp said had been present from the outset of his dispute with County Attorney Rheubin Taylor became more evident Wednesday.

Despite numerous 11-0 votes against him last fall over the county attorney's contract, the mayor had said he had more support on the commission than was evident.

Since 2022 rolled over to 2023, and the dispute over whether Wamp has the power to remove Taylor from his position gets closer to a court date, that support has gradually emerged.

On Wednesday, the commission, in budget amendments to correct actions it took relative to paying for legal fees in the dispute, reversed itself and voted 7-4 to not pay the fees for Taylor's attorney. On Jan. 4, members had voted 6-4 to pay the fees. Commissioners Mike Chauncey, R-East Ridge, and Warren Mackey, D-Lake Vista, switched votes, and new Commissioner Ken Smith, R-Hixson, provided a seventh vote against the fees.

Commissioners Jeff Eversole, R-Ooltewah, Lee Helton, R-East Brainerd, Gene-o Shipley, R-Soddy-Daisy, and Chairman Chip Baker, R-Signal Mountain, voted against paying the attorney costs on both motions. Commissioners Greg Beck, D-North Brainerd, David Sharpe, D-Red Bank, Steve Highlander, R-Ooltewah, and Joe Graham, R-Lookout Valley, voted to pay them both times.

The corrective actions were necessary because, as county finance director Lee Brouner had warned the commission on Jan. 4, it wasn't legal to pass a resolution with an open-ended contract amount.

In that meeting two weeks ago, the cracks began to emerge as the meeting grew longer. Eventually, more than an hour was spent on the issue, which Baker later termed "a distraction."

First, a resolution to pay for legal services for commissioners in the disagreement over the county attorney passed 10-0.

Next was a resolution paying for legal services going forward for Wamp, the commissioners and Taylor. Since the part involving the commissioners was redundant, it was amended and removed from the resolution by a 10-0 vote.

Following a bitter discussion between Sharpe and Wamp, Sharpe suggested the resolution be amended to remove representation for Wamp. The amendment passed 8-2, but Helton and Shipley voted "no," signalling the first crack in the unanimous commission.

Without further debate, they voted on the resolution to only pay for Taylor's legal fees, which passed 6-4, with Eversole and Baker adding "no" votes.

Since then, Wamp has narrowed the scope of his countersuit in the matter, focusing only on the validity of Taylor's contract and the ability of the current mayor to be able to appoint the county attorney. In a statement, he said dismissing four of the five claims against Taylor was "good faith gesture to expedite the legal process."

Similarly, Taylor's attorneys have filed a motion for a judgment on the case ahead of a trial, saying Wamp lacked standing to assert the claims in his suit and that his arguments are "totally groundless."

On Monday at the JFK Club of Chattanooga, Sharpe, one of Taylor's most vociferous defenders, reportedly found himself in what should have been a friendly crowd fielding questions that didn't completely support his defense of the attorney.

Finally, on Wednesday, after the 7-4 vote to pay a specific amount for Taylor's attorney costs failed, Sharpe questioned the panel, asking if they understood they were asking Taylor to represent them in matters before the county but wouldn't agree to pay his legal fees. He got no responses.

Ultimately, Smith tried to pull the commission back around to the original resolution on the open-ended legal fees, which had been deemed illegal.

But before he did, Eversole may have spoken for what cracks there are in the once unanimous commission. Taylor's contract was valid, he said, and he would defend that to the end, but "we don't need to be spending as a county tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands" on legal fees. Continuing to pay attorney fees, he said, would set a "precedent." Why, instead, couldn't the attorneys get together and settle the matter?

Wamp, called up to answer a question, assured the panel he wanted the dispute to be narrowed and, once and for all, to settle the "ambiguity of what state law permits" about such contracts.

Smith, again, attempted to steer the body back and vote to rescind the illegal resolution, which should have been a unanimous vote. But it passed only 9-2, with staunch Taylor defender Graham and Mackey, who'd been all over the board on his votes on attorney fees, voting no. Another 45 minutes had been spent on the dispute.

We hope the recent moves by attorneys for Wamp and Taylor draw the dispute to a resolution, perhaps even sooner than the early March time frame once foreseen. In the meantime, we believe the commissioners' recent votes indicate they don't feel the situation is as cut and dried as they once did and are weary of the costs and unproductive time spent on this. We are too.