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Our Views: A costly decision

Commission trio acted too hastily in changing law firms, at great expense

POSTED: May 1, 2011 1:00 a.m.

When you are a candidate for public office, caught up in the often heated rhetoric of the campaign trail, it's easy to promise sweeping changes. From the outside looking in, problems seem obvious, solutions are crystal clear and strategies for action easily formulated.

Some successful candidates, flush with the euphoria of political victory, feel a mandate to put their stamp on things immediately, to charge forth after election and make sweeping decisions based on their view of the world as candidates, before ever being involved in the day-to-day activities of governance.

And in such haste, mistakes are made.

We have offered the opinion in this space before that the current Hall County Board of Commissioners, with two new members who took office in January, made a mistake in making sweeping personnel changes at the beginning of the year before newly elected commissioners had an opportunity to fully evaluate performance as governing officials rather than candidates seeking political office.

The county commission's handling of the appointment of a county attorney is the perfect case in point. Empowered by their election, new Commissioners Craig Lutz and Scott Gibbs joined with incumbent Ashley Bell at the beginning of the year to oust Stewart Melvin & Frost, the Gainesville firm that had for years served as the county's attorney.

As an interim solution, the trio hired an Atlanta law firm, Holland & Knight, to assume the role of county attorney until a permanent selection could be made. Even before the old county attorney was dismissed, the three commissioners negotiated behind the scenes with the new firm, without the knowledge of other incumbents on the board, in order to have all the dominos in place to enact swift change.

And so it was. An Atlanta firm was tabbed to handle the county's legal duties, the former county attorney was cast aside and proposals were solicited from firms interested in filling the job on a permanent basis.

In the meantime, county officials learned that legal advice from big city law firms does not come cheaply. Hourly fees were more than double what the county was accustomed to paying. In less than three full months, the interim firm billed the county more than the old firm had in the previous six months.

Last week, the county voted to choose a firm to serve as county attorney. The choice? Stewart Melvin & Frost, the same firm the county had fired from the job in January.

Thousands of dollars later, we are back where we began, thanks to a 4-1 vote on the commission, with Lutz remaining in opposition to the selection. The one change of consequence in the selection is that the county will look for different counsel to handle bond issues, which previously had been done by the county attorney.

Commissioners originally had said they had ethical concerns about retaining the firm because one of its attorneys had joined with Chairman Tom Oliver and Commissioner Billy Powell in a business venture. Apparently those concerns were resolved for the two commissioners who voted to rehire the firm they voted to fire just three months ago.

After soliciting requests from firms interested in serving as county attorney, county administrators and commissioners then narrowed the list down to two. Commissioners had decided they only would consider local firms, and the two finalists both had the experience to do the job. We feel comfortable either would have been a good choice.

What is so obvious in hindsight is that this expensive lesson in decision making never needed to take place. We have no argument with new commissioners wanting to solicit proposals from firms to serve as the county attorney, but they could easily have left Stewart Melvin & Frost in place during that process without the necessity of going outside the county to secure an interim firm for the job.

The same is true with other sweeping changes made at the first of the year by the commission. Rather than firing the county administrator, assistant administrator and finance director, then making interim appointments for the county's top administrative positions, the commission could just have easily brought the "interims" in on a consultative basis to see what needed to be done, then taken action later if needed.

But doing so would not have let this board mark its territory.

We think there perhaps were lessons learned here, albeit expensive ones, that will serve the commission well as it moves ahead.

Bell and Gibbs could have stuck to their original position no matter what, but instead were willing to change their votes once the proposals were evaluated and reviewed. Give credit to them for being willing to cast a vote in the interest of what was best for the county rather than stubbornly sticking to their former positions.

As one of the two newcomers on the board, Gibbs may have learned that things look different from the inside of county government than they do on the campaign trail, when it's easy to be against the status quo. He also has shown that his can be an independent vote, and that those who choose to automatically link Gibbs and Lutz as a tandem make a mistake in doing so.

With one of the "interims" hired by commissioners in January gone, we now wait to see what happens with the other top administrators brought in to serve in a temporary capacity to allow time to search for permanent hires.



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