The Hall County Board of Commissioners voted Thursday to seek a Gainesville-based firm for the county attorney position to replace Bill Blalock, who was ousted from the job earlier this month.
Atlanta-based Holland and Knight, chosen Jan. 6 as the interim attorney, will stay in place at a discounted rate until a permanent firm is found.
"I would hope we can vote to move forward with the (request for proposal) tonight to get a local firm in here as soon as possible," Commissioner Ashley Bell said as he introduced the agenda item.
At the commission's Jan. 6 special called meeting, the board voted not to renew the contract of Blalock from Stewart, Melvin & Frost and chose Holland and Knight to temporarily replace him. Commissioners agreed to cap the firm's charges at $10,000 until a payment arrangement could be reached. Holland and Knight hit the $10,000 maximum on Jan. 17.
On Thursday, Charles Johnson of Holland and Knight agreed to charge a reduced rate of $395 per hour for his time. Firm associates, who will conduct about 80 percent of work, will charge between $210-$290 per hour. Blalock charged $150 per hour, officials had said.
Bell said those rates should mean the county will pay about the same amount for legal fees that they paid Blalock.
"In looking at our 1099 form for the prior firm, we averaged $41,549 a month ... which is about $10,000 per week," Bell said. "Holland and Knight billed that much for a week and a half. They're pretty much on par with the $41,000 weekly average already."
Bell said the board next week should send the request for proposal to the Gainesville Bar for qualifications and fees and immediately begin interviews.
Commissioner Craig Lutz seconded Bell's motion, which passed in a 3-2 vote, with Bell, Lutz and Commissioner Scott Gibbs in favor and Chairman Tom Oliver and Commissioner Billy Powell in opposition.
"We're getting a very good bang for our buck," Lutz said. "We will do everything we can to expeditiously get to a permanent solution, which we all want to be a local Gainesville firm."
Looking at the itemized memo for Holland and Knight, Powell asked if the commissioners would discuss procedures regarding the county attorney.
"I noticed there's an e-mail correspondence with one commissioner on here, not citing specifics," he said. "I think we need to come up with procedures to where it takes more than one commissioner to actually engage a law firm on an issue."
Bell and Gibbs disagreed.
"There are several times that I've asked for memos about issues, such as the legality of having the library at Clermont," Bell said. "Every commissioner has the right to call the county attorney if they need a better understanding of why we're doing something. He's our county attorney, whoever he is sitting in that chair."
Oliver asked the commissioners to postpone the procedural discussion for the next work session.
"I'm not an attorney, but if Ashley has to ask a question, then I certainly have to," Gibbs said.
After the meeting, Johnson noted he's ready to move forward as commissioners seek the permanent firm.
"If a county has needs that are ongoing, it's hard to say no, and with some of our limitations, we responded to issues as they came up," he said. "It was a bridge situation, but now we're able to move forward with a full transition."
The Atlanta firm prefers the interim arrangement.
"It's perfect for us. We're more accustomed to special services while someone else serves the day-to-day function," Johnson said. "I think it will serve the county well in the long run to have a local firm."
Johnson was also relieved that commissioners accepted the reduced rates without extensive debate.
At the Jan. 6 meeting, Oliver questioned Johnson's charges that were almost triple Blalock's usual rate.
"We have standard rates, but not all clients are local governments," Johnson said Thursday. "This kind of discount recognizes a government's limited resources, and it's a public service to some extent. We understand what they're trying to do and are willing to help out."