Hall County Board of Commissioners
When: 3 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Courthouse Annex second floor commission meeting room, 116 Spring St. SE, Gainesville
When: 6 p.m. Thursday
Where: Georgia Mountains Center, 301 Main St., Gainesville
The Hall County Board of Commissioners will choose a new county attorney this week, hoping to put an end to high costs from its interim law firm.
On Thursday, commissioners must decide between Gainesville-based firms Stewart, Melvin & Frost, which represented the county through January, and Fox, Chandler, Homans, Hicks & McKinnon, which represents the Hall County Board of Tax Assessors.
The county's interim law firm, Atlanta-based Holland & Knight, has charged the county as much as $395 an hour for legal advice, more than twice the rate charged by former attorney Bill Blalock, according to documents obtained by The Times.
For its work in January, 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 think it's totally inappropriate to have a legal bill of this amount," Chairman Tom Oliver said Friday. "That's $2 million a year for the track we're on, and using an Atlanta law firm is not the way the county should be conducting itself, which we will correct Thursday."
Blalock charged $150 per hour. During fiscal year 2010, which began July 1, 2009, and ended June 30, 2010, Blalock's firm of Stewart, Melvin & Frost charged the county $31,035 to $58,889 per month.
The county paid Stewart, Melvin & Frost $396,764.85 for fiscal year 2008, $388,984.06 in fiscal year 2009 and $487,598.18 in fiscal year 2010. So far in fiscal year 2011, which started July 1, the county already has spent $544,892.
The invoices include charges for email correspondence, telephone conferences and meetings about the transition of attorney duties from Blalock, hostile work environments, personnel investigations and preparation for commission meetings.
"I know we had a lot going on in February and March with personnel and bond work on the Spout Springs reclamation plant, which took up some legal time," Commissioner Craig Lutz said. "That adds up to a significant number of billable hours."
On Jan. 6, commissioners voted to not renew the contracts of Blalock and three other top officials: Administrator Charley Nix, Assistant Administrator Phil Sutton and Finance Director Michaela Thompson.
At the same meeting, Holland & Knight was selected to serve the county's legal needs until a permanent county attorney is selected.
But even before the change was officially approved, the firm billed the county for $4,542 for what the invoice listed as "preparation" and "employment matters." Two of the firm's attorneys attended the Jan. 6 meeting.
Holland & Knight said the majority of work would be done by the firm's associates, who charge a lower rate of $285 per hour. Partners charge $395 per hour.
The county placed a request for proposals in February, and seven firms applied for the position by March. County officials created a committee, including Commissioners Scott Gibbs and Billy Powell, to review the bids and score them based on their qualifications.
During the April 12 work session, Gibbs requested the entire board become involved with the final process and interview the two firms that week.
However, commissioners were later told conflicting legal advice about the interview process and decided to make the final call at an open meeting this week.
"There were legal hurdles with the attorney general about the ability to do interviews, so we're going into this a little blind," Lutz said. "We haven't had the ability to get independent and in-person information about these firms."
This is tough for Lutz, who is one of the commissioners who voted out Stewart, Melvin & Frost in January.
"I agree that we need a local firm, but I obviously had reasons not to have Stewart, Melvin & Frost then," Lutz said. "I feel like I haven't been presented other options."
For Oliver, Thursday marks the day to get attorney affairs back in order.
"Everything being equal, I'm comfortable with Stewart, Melvin & Frost, especially looking at what our legal bills are now," he said. "More than $140,000 in March is incredible and not what the county needs to be doing. We need to get back locally."