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Hall commission rehires its former law firm
County returns to Stewart Melvin & Frost by 4-1 vote after switching attorneys in January
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The Hall County Board of Commissioners chose Stewart Melvin & Frost, a firm it fired in January, as its new legal team.

With a 4-1 vote — only Commissioner Craig Lutz opposed — commissioners approved the firm that represented the county for years until January.

Chairman Tom Oliver initiated the motion to choose the previous firm, with hourly rates of $150 for partners, $125 for associates and $95 for paralegals. The county will place a separate request for proposals for bond transactions. Commissioner Billy Powell immediately backed up the motion.

"This commission has seen its ups and downs, and hopefully we can go forward with Stewart, Melvin & Frost with better relations," said Commissioner Ashley Bell. "When the ethics complaint was filed, those were pretty bad days for this commission."

On Jan. 6, commissioners voted to not renew the contracts of Stewart, Melvin & Frost attorney Bill Blalock and three other top officials: Administrator Charley Nix, Assistant Administrator Phil Sutton and Finance Director Michaela Thompson.

Several commissioners claimed the firm had a conflict of interest because, at one time, attorney Tread Syfan was in business with Oliver and Powell.

"The critical part of this is that the bond council is absolutely separate, which was my problem with the prior relationship," Bell said. "We've received assurances that this will not happen again, and I think all parties considered know it's not a good idea."

However, Lutz said his concerns included more than the bond relationship.

"I prepared a statement, figuring this would happen, but I'm going to save us a lot of time," he said. "I just want people to know that we had other legitimate reasons to let the firm go."

Though he was disappointed with the vote, Lutz said Stewart, Melvin & Frost will do a good job as the permanent attorney again.

"Even if this was the warning shot for them, my hope is that we can put this whole thing behind us and move forward," he said after the meeting. "We have bigger issues to worry about, such as the budget."

For its work in January, Atlanta-based firm Holland & Knight billed the county $34,680.10. In February, the firm charged $99,750.20 for 350 hours of work.

In March, the most recent invoices available, the firm charged $140,235.51 for 491 hours.

"I'm thrilled to have this position back in the hands of a local firm, and I'm glad the bond work will be put out for bid," said Commissioner Scott Gibbs. "I look forward to working in a way that will be fair and equitable to all parties."

Commissioners also said their farewells to O.V. Brantley, who served as the county's interim attorney for Holland & Knight.

"It calms us down a little bit to have a woman at the end of the table, giving us those looks," Bell said. "It's been a pleasure to work with you."

Lutz noted that he and Brantley bring the same copy of the Robert's Rules of Order to meetings, and Oliver recognized her expertise in quilting.

"Her firm brought her out of retirement to come deal with us," Oliver said with a smile. "I'm not sure you understood where you would end up."

Brantley asked for a moment of personal privilege to say her last words as interim attorney.

"It has just truly, truly, truly been a pleasure to serve the citizens of Hall County," she said. "I am a resident of Fulton County, so some of the adventures I've enjoyed here have not been out of the ordinary for me. I want to thank everybody for the way they've been so kind to me during my time up here."