Chancellor declares Hamilton County attorney’s contract is valid

Mayor Weston Wamp has been trying to fire Rheubin Taylor since October

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Rheubin Taylor sits and listens on Wednesday at the Hamilton County Chancery Court. Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton heard arguments in the lawsuit Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor filed against Mayor Weston Wamp.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Rheubin Taylor sits and listens on Wednesday at the Hamilton County Chancery Court. Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton heard arguments in the lawsuit Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor filed against Mayor Weston Wamp.

A Hamilton County judge has declared County Attorney Rheubin Taylor's four-year contract is valid in spite of efforts by county Mayor Weston Wamp since October to terminate Taylor.

"When push comes to shove, yes, it is a valid contract," Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton said during a hearing in Hamilton County Chancery Court on Wednesday. "It has a degree of specificity. It was executed by the appropriate parties. It has a definite term."

Taylor has served as county attorney since 1993 and had his latest four-year contract renewed June 16, 2021, by former Mayor Jim Coppinger and a prior batch of county commissioners.

It expires June 30, 2025, but last October, the newly sworn in Wamp attempted to fire Taylor, citing among his reasons private legal work Taylor conducted during business hours and the destruction of documents related to public records requests.

County commissioners immediately came to Taylor's defense, passing resolutions aimed at reaffirming his contract and preserving his access to his office and materials. They later overrode the mayor's vetoes of those resolutions.

Shortly after Wamp's attempt to fire Taylor unilaterally, the attorney sued the mayor in Chancery Court, asking that a judge restore his county health benefits and rule on the mayor's authority over that position.

Taylor's attorney, Neil Thomas, said during the hearing Wednesday the case fundamentally centers on the sanctity of contracts.

"What has been ignored by Mayor Wamp in his submissions, which involve a plethora of arguments, is that this contract between Hamilton County and Rheubin Taylor has a provision for termination, which supersedes any at-will argument of Mayor Wamp," Thomas said.

Taylor's contract states termination requires a majority of the County Commission with concurrence from the mayor or a two-thirds majority of the board without agreement from the mayor. Officials have said it also permits Taylor to complete private work alongside his duties as county attorney.

"We have a valid contract whose termination provisions were totally ignored by the mayor's attempt to terminate Mr. Taylor," Thomas said. "He has continued that attempt to relegate the position of the County Commission by saying they do not have the power to do what they have done.

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton speaks on Wednesday at the Hamilton County Chancery Court. Atherton heard arguments in the lawsuit Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor filed against Mayor Weston Wamp.
 
 

"I would respectfully submit, your honor, that this is pure and simple a power play — who has the power in this situation," Thomas continued. "I would submit that power resides with our County Commission."

Wamp's legal team has argued officials can't make appointments that last past the expiration of their elected terms, and one of his attorneys, Barret Albritton, said that still remains a valid legal question.

Coppinger did not seek re-election and left office Sept. 1, more than a year after Taylor's new four-year contract began. Voters also elected a new slate of county commissioners in August.

"For that reason, I think there's definitely a consideration for a potential appeal," Albritton said in an interview after the hearing. "I'm not saying that we will. I'm not saying that we won't, but that avenue will certainly be explored."

Atherton said Wednesday that if Taylor's contract term was open-ended, he would be much more sympathetic to arguments it was void. However, "2025 is as specific as you can get," he said.

"It wasn't a big question that there would be another mayor, and continuity of government is crucial," he said.

State law says the county mayor can employ or retain counsel "if there is no county attorney."

"You don't have to read any further than that," Atherton said. "Because at the time that the discussion concerning attempted termination took place, there was a county attorney. This does not intrude upon the appointment authority of the mayor."

"He has that opportunity, but not when there's already in place under the contract with a specified period of time an existing county attorney," Atherton continued.

In a statement Wednesday, Taylor's lawyers — Neil Thomas and his son Michael Thomas — said the court was correct in "upholding the sanctity of contracts."

"We hope that the parties will resolve themselves to work cohesively towards the best interests of this county," the statement said.

In his own statement, Wamp said Taylor has for decades run a private legal practice out of his government office while being "paid handsomely" as a full-time county employee.

Taylor's salary as of October is about $180,000. His contract states, "It is understood that this position is deemed a full-time occupation although the attorney may engage in any other non-conflicting activities on a professional basis."

Wamp said he sought to terminate Taylor after receiving legal opinions from Dwight Tarwater, now a justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court, and the state's County Technical Assistance Service regarding his right to hire and fire the county attorney.

"We're disappointed by the court's ruling and believe this high-profile case should have been handled outside Hamilton County by a judge who does not personally know the parties," Wamp said. "We have not let this case get in the way of the important work of county government and will continue to work tirelessly to improve the quality of life for the people of Hamilton County."

Taylor did not reply to a request for comment.

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

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