Recently, Newton County Commission Chairman Marcello Banes posted on the county’s website the legal costs being incurred by the Board of Commissioners (BOC) and Sheriff Ezell Brown. Apparently, Chairman Banes was trying to make the case that hiring another law firm to represent the county or hiring an in-house staff attorney would save money. Additional analysis is needed to better understand why taxpayers are footing such large legal bills.
The BOC fired former county attorney Tommy Craig in November 2016 after years of high legal bills and problems with the Bear Creek Reservoir project, including self-enhancing side deals. Subsequently, the county hired the Jarrard & Davis Law Firm to represent the county, with Ms. Megan Martin as our primary attorney. However, Sheriff Brown immediately hired Tommy Craig to solely represent his department instead of using the county as was his practice when Mr. Craig held that position.
Ms. Martin and her colleagues at Jarrard & Davis found huge legal problems when they began working for the county in FY 2016. The county faced a long-standing lawsuit involving the landfill, as well as major legal tangles involving the Bear Creek Reservoir. The county’s form of government was changed, the Solid Waste Authority was formed, the 2017 SPLOST was implemented and the county fought a lawsuit by its former recreation director. In short, the legal fees paid to Jarrard & Davis have been the result of high demand for legal services by the county and over-reliance of the staff on the very competent Ms. Martin.
Fortunately, the trend of payments to Jarrard & Davis has been downward from a high of $1.07 million in FY 2016 to $653,355 in FY 2020. According to Chairman Banes, this is still too high compared to other similar counties.
Actions by Sheriff Brown have added significantly to the county’s overall legal costs. From FY 2010 to FY 2015, before Tommy Craig was hired exclusively to represent the sheriff, legal services for the sheriff and jail departments averaged $85,732 per year based on Chairman Banes’ data. After hiring Mr. Craig, the sheriff’s total legal costs have averaged $335,061 from FY 2017-FY 2020. That is almost four times the amount before the sheriff hired Mr. Craig.
The big increase in his overall legal bills has been due to the hiring of Mr. Craig. When the sheriff was using Mr. Craig along with other county departments in FY 2015, he paid him only $23,841. Since FY 2017, the sheriff has averaged paying Mr. Craig $287,509 per year, or over 12 times more. It is difficult to understand why Sheriff Brown’s legal spending rose that much concurrently with the hiring of Mr. Craig.
Regardless of who the county hires in the future, both the BOC and the sheriff have to be far more careful with spending on attorney fees.
Tom West and Barbara M. Morgan