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Newton commission begins process of creating in-house law department
Board members seek to control legal fees that have exceeded larger area counties
solid waste authority
Newton County Attorney Megan Martin swears in the Solid Waste Management Authority's board of directors in 2016. Left to right are: Nancy Schulz, Ronnie Johnston, Wayne Haynie, Bob Stafford, Sharon Sawyer, Phillip Wise, Keith Ellis and Lanier Sims.

COVINGTON, Ga. — Commissioners are hoping to cut the county government’s costs by creating a new department to handle its legal needs rather than paying an outside law firm.

Newton County Board of Commissioners members voted unanimously last week to proceed with a plan to create an in-house law department to replace the outside firm it has employed since 2016.

Commissioners voted Tuesday, Dec. 1, to discuss the next steps in the transition at a future meeting.

County officials said they now must set up the new department, including accounting for the new attorney position and support staff.

The county government has used the Forsyth County-based law firm Jarrard & Davis for its legal needs since 2015. 

Jarrard & Davis would continue to serve as the county attorney until the new department is operating, said spokesman Bryan Fazio. 

District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan said the board has been discussing such an action for about three years.

“We’re trying to control legal fees,” he said.

District 1 Commissioner Stan Edwards — who made the motion to begin the transition process — said he was unsure when the board will discuss the matter again.

The county commission contracted with Jarrard & Davis after firing its longtime Covington law firm headed by W.T. “Tommy” Craig in 2015 amid questions about management of funds for the Bear Creek Reservoir project that was ultimately abandoned.

The sheriff's office, however, still uses Craig’s firm for its legal work.

Ironically, the county government originally hired Jarrard & Davis in 2015 to serve as an interim county attorney until it could create an in-house attorney position.

Commission Chairman Marcello Banes said earlier this year his research showed Newton County pays more for legal services than its neighboring counties and some larger counties in metro Atlanta. 

He said he supported creation of an attorney position and one supporting staff member under the supervision of County Manager Lloyd Kerr

"I greatly appreciate the hard work that (Jarrard & Davis) has done during a difficult transition period. However, it is clear that the time has come to address our legal costs in a more aggressive manner," Banes said in July.

Banes said Newton County paid a total of $944,562 to two different law firms representing the county government and sheriff's office in the 2020 fiscal year that ended June 30. That amount has fluctuated annually but has averaged about $910,000 annually since 2010, according to figures Banes reported.

He said that, by comparison, some larger counties spent much less in 2020, including Henry County at $589,000, Hall County at $765,310, and Paulding County at $504,707.

He said many counties he researched either used a single local law firm or an in-house attorney.

However, some critics have argued that the county should keep Jarrard & Davis because its costs have trended downward after dealing with significant one-time legal issues such as a change in the county’s form of government, issues surrounding the Bear Creek Reservoir, and lawsuits involving the county’s landfill and its former recreation director.

Megan Martin of Jarrard & Davis also has said any government using a law firm can lower costs by being more efficient in its usage of legal services — for example, by not requiring attorneys to be present at all meetings.