Holding back the appointment tide on county attorney

Larry Van GuilderAs I see it

Some attorneys just don’t take reporters seriously. In the case of one attorney, that fact was brought home to me when I made what he considered an outlandish assertion.

“We elect the county attorney; the office is called the ‘law director’ here.”

“Who elects them?”

“Knox County voters.”

And he laughed.

To spare his good name and avoid any ill feelings at the next meeting of the Tennessee County Attorneys Association I will refrain from identifying him. Still, I have to admit my Knox County blood was a bit riled that he would make sport of our quaint custom, even if he did have 90-odd other counties on his side, all of which either had a county attorney appointed by their mayor or hired one as the need arose.

Mayor Glenn Jacobs probably doesn’t see the humor in Knox County’s continuing stand against the county attorney appointment tide. But Jacobs takes a dim view of the law director’s actions to begin with.

Last October Jacobs asked county commission to consider his proposal to settle a lawsuit brought by Knox County Law Director Richard
“Bud” Armstrong against the pension board and several sheriff’s deputies over the method used to calculate pensions; the county was suing itself.

The mayor claimed hundreds of thousands of dollars were being lost unnecessarily. When he failed to secure enough votes to add the proposal to the commission’s agenda he departed in high dudgeon. That he ultimately lay the blame at the law director’s feet was natural and not unexpected. (In fairness, neither the mayor nor commission had authority to settle.)

Like the fee offices, the law director’s office was spared mayoral appointment purgatory when voters failed to ratify a 2008 charter amendment.

Rheubin Taylor is county attorney for Hamilton County, a position he’s held for 26 years. He was a county commissioner for 15 years before moving to the lawyerly side of operations.

He earns about $150,000 a year and is one of four attorneys in the office. Three legal assistants are employed as well.

Taylor was appointed by the mayor with the approval of county commission. He says he could be “retired” any time the mayor decides he should be.

Hamilton County is the fourth most populous in the state, with 364,000 residents. Knox County ranks third at 465,000.

As noted previously in this column, the Knox County law director’s office employs 11 attorneys (including the director) and eight assistants. Circumstances from one county to the next vary, but the disparity in numbers is difficult to reconcile in two counties fairly close in population. Maybe Knox County is home to a much greater number of contrary, litigious folks, or maybe we sue ourselves too aggressively.

With 48,000 residents, Bedford County is dwarfed by Knox County, but as with nearly all its larger kin the county attorney is a mayoral appointment. Mayor Chad Graham holds to the wisdom of that approach.

“You need someone to give you legal guidance through gray areas,” he said. Graham said he meets with the county attorney for about an hour each week.

Graham thinks the argument that an appointed attorney would feel allegiance to the mayor above the law is facetious.

“If that’s so,” he said, “you have a problem with the mayor’s judgment, not the attorney.”

Shelby County, Tennessee’s most populous, appoints its attorney. It’s one of two charter counties along with Knox and pays its attorney about $145,000 annually.

The office is manned by 17 full-time and four part-time attorneys. Its 936,000 residents are double Knox County’s population.

A senior executive assistant in the Shelby County mayor’s office said the county attorney’s office was currently “in transition” as the position is being filled. As for concerns about the attorneys’ loyalty, she said in her experience they were “beholden to the law and the public.”

Larry Van Guilder is the business/government editor for KnoxTNToday.   

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *