Related editorial: Our Views: A costly decision
Hall County's new attorney has some big shoes to fill — his own.
Less than four months after Bill Blalock was fired from his yearslong post, the Board of Commissioners welcomed him back to a seat at the table.
"I'm very honored to be back with the county, and I'll sit and talk with the county administrator next week about the transition," Blalock said Friday. "Fortunately, I haven't been entirely disassociated with the county. I've been helping with the sheriff's office, tax assessors' board and part of the interim transition."
On Jan. 6, commissioners voted not to renew the contracts of Blalock and three other top officials: Administrator Charley Nix, Assistant Administrator Phil Sutton and Finance Director Michaela Thompson.
Three commissioners claimed Blalock's firm, Stewart, Melvin & Frost, had a conflict of interest because at one time, attorney Tread Syfan was in business with Chairman Tom Oliver and Commissioner Billy Powell.
On Thursday, commissioners rehired Stewart, Melvin & Frost after placing a request from proposals in February and a search committee narrowed the choice from seven local law firms to two. The other firm in the bidding, Fox, Chandler, Homans, Hicks & McKinnon, represents the Hall County Board of Tax Assessors.
Commissioners moved forward with a 4-1 vote, with only Craig Lutz opposed.
"I had issues with the previous firm being in partnership with folks on the commission, but it has been addressed," said Commissioner Scott Gibbs. "Nobody on this commission will be in business with anybody in that law firm."
The county will place a separate request for proposals for a law firm to handle bond transactions.
"There is no way as an attorney that I would put clients in that sort of position," Commissioner Ashley Bell said.
"It's an absolute conflict of interest, and the lessons learned aren't just for us. We all have to keep our ethics."
During the interim, commissioners hired Atlanta-based firm Holland & Knight for legal matters.
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. Partners earned $395 per hour, and associates earned $285 hourly.
Hall County resident Phyllis Mercer expressed her concerns about the costs Thursday night before commissioners voted on a permanent change.
"It appears you put your personal agenda before the taxpayers," she told the board. "It seems the interim firm has been used for more personal items, such as severance and transition work, which is not a true business expense. I encourage you to pick a local firm and stop this excessive expense."
Stewart, Melvin & Frost will charge hourly rates of $150 for partners, $125 for associates and $95 for paralegals.
Blalock declined to comment on Holland & Knight's fees but said he hopes to keep the costs low.
"I feel like we do our work at a reasonable price and try to hold it down in a time when tax revenues and general revenues are down," he said. "All areas of government are making an effort to cut expenses, and that includes legal fees."
Stewart, Melvin & Frost became Hall County's law firm in 1989. Blalock took the seat in 1992 to generate ordinances, prepare contracts, review zoning matters, acquire property and help department heads.
"Having been here for 20 years, I've gained a great deal of knowledge about how a county works, particularly Hall County and its departments," Blalock said Friday. "I'm down the street and readily available, and I'm able to provide a response if they need it quickly."
All five commissioners expressed their eagerness Thursday to bring Blalock back, knocking down any ideas of animosity.
"I don't anticipate any problems with the transition," Blalock said. "The county hasn't changed a great deal since I've been gone, and there will be no issues that I'm aware of."
Now it's time for Blalock to move forward and pick up previous projects.
"Being a county attorney is an interesting job because you have your hand on the heartbeat of the community," he said. "Many changes start with county government, and you're on the forefront as the county attorney."