County having to dip into reserves to pay for new county attorney
Grady County’s cost of legal services continues to grow and county commissioners will have to dig deeper into its reserves to pay Hall Booth Smith for its second quarter billing prompting a discussion Monday night about looking for a new county attorney.
The billing for the three months of April, May and June was received by county officials last Wednesday, July 25, and totaled $31,486.50, which is down slightly from the first quarter total of $42,836.47. In 2017, the county paid its former attorney approximately $50,000 for the entire year. Hall Booth’s bill for only six months in 2018 already stands at a total of $74,322.97.
“I think we should look for a new county attorney next month,” Grady County Commissioner Keith Moye said after learning about the second quarter billing from Hall Booth. “Are y’all willing to pay $160,000 a year for a county attorney?” Moye asked.
Grady County Commission Vice Chairman T.D. David said that County Attorney Jennifer Herzog and the Hall Booth Smith law firm had done what the county had asked them to do. He said part of the initial expense was to learn what all was going on within Grady County government, however he admitted he thought by now the expenses would have decreased more.
“They have a lot to do. Things that were not done and things they had to get right,” Chairman Ray Prince stated.
“I’m not saying Jennifer isn’t doing a good job. We just can’t afford her,” Commissioner Moye said.
Commissioner LaFaye Copeland said the only reason she voted to change county attorneys last December was because she had been told that Hall Booth could handle all of the legal work the county needed. “That isn’t the case. We are still having to pay other lawyers,” she added.
Commissioner Copeland said she did not have issues with the performance of Herzog, but she said she also was not opposed to hiring a new county attorney.
County officials also say that department head and constitutional officers who call the county attorney with questions also increase the charges for legal services.
“I’ll put a stop to all of this calling,” Chairman Prince pledged.
“It’s not so much folks calling her, it’s what you ask her to do,” Vice Chairman David commented.
Commissioner June Knight was absent Monday night for the budget discussion and the discussion about the county attorney.
The county has far exceeded its $16,000 budget for county attorney and is using reserves to pay the expenses of the county commission’s attorney, Jennifer Herzog, and other members of the Hall Booth Smith law firm doing work for the county.
Exactly what taxpayers are being asked to pay for remains a secret. After all of the descriptions of service were redacted in the first quarter billing, The Cairo Messenger asked Georgia Attorney General Christopher M. Carr’s office to investigate the matter.
On July 18, Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo demanded Herzog respond within 10 business days with an explanation of why the county believes every description of the Hall Booth Smith invoice should be kept from being made public.
In an email to The Messenger on July 25, the assistant AG said that she had “discussed” the matter with Herzog, who had agreed to take a closer look at the bills and “get back to me to discuss what should be left un-redacted.”
The Attorney General’s office indicated it would report back but nothing had been received as of presstime.
On that same day, July 25, Hall Booth issued the billing for the second quarter to Grady County Accounting Manager Donna Johnson.
On Wednesday afternoon, July 25, Herzog emailed The Messenger to say the newspaper would receive a copy of Hall Booth’s response to the AG, but as the newspaper went to press Wednesday morning no response had been received.
Following the discussion of the billing Monday night by commissioners, this newspaper requested an un-redacted copy of the billing, but was provided a copy that had all of the descriptions redacted other than “attend Board of Commissioners Regular Meeting” or special meetings or joint meetings with other agencies and those dates. Herzog also attended a portion of an Archway G4 retreat held in Thomasville on April 13 at a cost to taxpayers of $1,072.50.
Likely hidden in redaction is the wording travel to and from Cairo to attend a meeting since Herzog is from Tifton.
Based on the second quarter billing, the cost to taxpayers for a Hall Booth attorney to attend the six regular commission meetings held between April 1 and June 30 was $5,843.50. The county also paid Herzog $741 to attend a joint meeting between the county commission and officials representing the cities of Cairo and Whigham on April 12.
Total fees for general government work during the second quarter totaled $18,457.50.
Also during the second quarter, Hall Booth charged the county $10,372.50 for work related to Tired Creek Lake, including one charge in January from senior partner Anthony A. Rowell who did 3.5 hours of work that is kept secret at a cost of $787.50. The bill does reveal that Herzog was paid $624 for attending a joint meeting of the county commission and Grady County Lake Authority on May 15. The remainder of the description of services regarding the lake are redacted.
Hall Booth Smith also billed the county $2,656.50 for work related to Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, but none of the description of services is made public so just what the work was for remains a secret to the public.
The Messenger has requested that Herzog explain how it is in the public interest to keep secret the work her firm is doing for Grady County taxpayers but the county attorney has declined to respond other than citing OCGA 50-18-72(a)(41) and (a)(42) as the statutory authority to redact those entries.
Herzog has previously told the members of the commission it is within their right to waive the attorney/client privilege and release un-redacted invoices to the public, but to-date the county commissioners are keeping the details of the billing a secret.
Grady County Commissioners purportedly concerned about the county’s cost for legal representation solicited a Request for Qualifications for legal services in November 2017 and ultimately voted 3-2 on Dec. 29, 2017 not to reappoint Cauley. They then hired Hall Booth Smith on the recommendation of Grady County Commission Chairman Ray Prince, Grady County Clerk Carrie Croy and former county administrator Carlos Tobar. Chairman Prince, Commissioner June Knight and Commissioner LaFaye Copeland voted to make the change with Vice Chairman T.D. David and Commissioner Keith Moye voting to reappoint Cauley.
Based on its agreement with the county, Hall Booth bills at a rate of $225 per hour for senior partners, $195 per hour for junior partners and $175 per hour for associates. Herzog does the bulk of the county’s work and she is a junior partner.
Last fall, Cauley, who had served as the county attorney since 2002, bid his services at $175 per hour and $145 per hour for his associate Charles Ferenchick. A significant portion of the approximately $50,000 paid to Cauley in 2017 was roughly $15,000 the county paid him for work on acquiring 40 tracts of right-of-way, which was the largest right-of-way project the county had undertaken during his tenure as county attorney.