It was probably one of the worst kept secrets in Newton County in recent months.
Prior to the 7 p.m. Board of Commissioners (BOC) meeting Tuesday night, crowds began to file into the courthouse, gathering in small groups to whisper and speculate about what was going to be presented at the meeting.
As early as late last week, rumors started spreading that the BOC was going to fire the county attorney, the law firm of W. T. Craig of Covington, or that it was going to demand a scope of work from the attorney, who has been working without one for 39 years.
What was apparent was something was going to happen Tuesday night, and that anticipation grew with the formation of a large crowd outside the Newton County Historic Courthouse as early as 5 p.m. Some members of the crowd carried signs in support of Craig, some protesting his services.
After recognizing some Newton County citizens, holding a budget hearing and other business, District 5 Commissioner Levie Maddox ended the anticipation. Maddox made the motion to enter new territory and transition the county's legal representation from an appointed county attorney to an in-house county attorney in front of a near-capacity crowd at the courthouse.
Maddox's motion would make it possible for the county manager to create a job posting for a new in-house attorney and have the county move to an in-house legal department. That motion passed 4-1 with District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson voting against.
“After much discussion with other commissioners and through a great deal of prayer, I believe it is within the best interest of Newton County to create an in-house legal department,” Maddox said.
Maddox requested the job be posted Friday, Nov. 20 and that the county manager, human resource director and a district commissioner be a part of the interview process.
District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz then asked that Maddox add to his motion that two commissioners be in on the interview process, and that all documents be moved from the office of W.T. Craig Law to the Newton County Administration Building under the supervision of the county manager by Dec. 1. District 2 Commissioner Lanier Sims requested the motion be amended to Dec. 15 to accommodate the holidays.
The request to have documents brought over to a county building brought on an uproar of applause from the crowd.
As for the time period to hire a new attorney, District 1 Commissioner John Douglas requested “it not be open-ended,” but stated there were many things to be considered.
“There is a lot of logistics needed to be worked out, such as where this office is going to be, and the staff,” Douglas said. “Clearly … Clearly the time has come to make this transition and so I think it’s best if we go ahead and get it done and move on.”
Douglas requested that the transition be completed by the close of business on Jan. 4.
Henderson, who had the lone descending vote, took a pause from discussing how the county would move forward and commended Craig for his service.
“All the good things that have happened in Newton County for the past 35 years, has been because we have that man – Newton County Attorney Tommy Craig,” Henderson said.
Citizens began to shout at Henderson’s comments, causing Chairman Keith Ellis to step in. Ellis urged the crowd to respect the process of decisions being made for the county, and asked the board to consider a few things.
“There is a tremendous amount of litigation going on right now,” Ellis told the board. “If this motion goes through there is a great deal of litigation to be considered and taken care of. We have a lot at stake and the citizens of Newton County have a lot at stake.”
While many citizens blamed Craig's office for the excessive legal bills racked up by the county, which have topped $1 million annual for at least the last two years, the commissioners were quick to say Craig's office was only billing for services they had been asked by the board as a whole or individual board members the attorneys to work on.
County legal work can cover contracts, personnel matters, litigation, drafting resolutions and ordinances, consultation and land acquisition and can address issues faced by the BOC, the sheriff's office, county manager and other county departments.
Craig and his office are in the midst of working on litigation, in which the county has 14 cases pending against it, and were set to handle contract talks with The Foxfield Company regarding a proposed commercial development site in Covington.
Sims made another motion regarding the county's legal situation Tuesday, to have litigation handled with the county manager seeking services of legal council at the approval of the board.
Craig has served as Newton County’s attorney for 39 years, but has recently come under public scrutiny for high legal fees and work as the county’s water consultant. To read more about Craig and the county’s legal fees click here.
“I have represented Newton County for almost four decades,” Craig told the board. “It has been a distinct pleasure and a privilege. I turn 66 on Dec. 22, and I hope to get a Social Security check on Jan. 1.”
Craig then took his leave of the meeting immediately after his comments, prompting one audience member, Jessica Pierson to protest the early departure, wanting a chance to comment with the attorney present during the citizen commentary portion of the meeting. At the request of Ellis, the young woman was escorted from the courthosue by a sheriff's deputy.
In the wake of the decision, Maddox requested that Attorney Jenny Carter, of the Craig law firm, who has been drafting the enabling legislation for a proposed new county charter, remove all language and intension from the existing charter that calls for the appointment of a county attorney, "since we're moving forward with a new, strong county manager and with a new legal model."
The draft of the enabling legislation, changing the form of government from a strong county chair, elected position to a strong county manager appointed position, with the chair serving as the political "face" of the county will be posted online at the Newton County web site following review and comments from the commissioners.
During the citizen commentary portion of the meeting, most of those addressing the BOC praised the decision to transfer to an in-house legal cousel model of legal representation, one that might require the hiring of outside counsul for special cases. Only one citizen spoke out against the decision, praying that the BOC had made the right decision, adding he thought the situation could have beeh handled in a way less dehumanizing way to the long-time county attorney. Craig, he said, had been the county attorney for many years and had served the county well. The Newton County resident thought the commissioners could have handled announcing the desicion to move to an in-house counsul wih more respect and dignity.
However, most comments were in favor of the decision, and members of the audience applauded when the board approved the county's legal staffing changes.